Common intuition has it that those who have sensory impairments compensate for their weaknesses by developing strengths in other areas. For instance, it is said that those with vision impairments or blindness might learn to use their hearing and sense of touch to orient to space. They might develop the ability to hear things that others don’t notice in order to warn them of oncoming obstacles or to attune them to needed information.

Similarly, some believe that those with hearing loss or deafness use their other senses to fill in the gaps where their hearing left off. For instance, they might become acutely aware of visual stimuli or might use their bodies to sensitize them to spatial changes when their ears are not able to do so. Although these possibilities might seem intuitive, a new study has found something confounding that might lead to the opposite conclusion.

A Correlation between Hearing and Visual Stimulation

Two scholars with the Ohio State University College of Medicine published an article on attention to visual stimuli among young children. The journal PLOS ONE released these findings by co-authors Claire Monroy, a post-doctoral fellow in otolaryngology fellow and Derek Houston, an associate professor of otolaryngology at Ohio State, regarding the ability of infants and young children to process visual information. We have known for some time that there is a difference in cognitive functioning between those who have hearing impairments or deafness and those who do not. The researchers wondered if the difference might have to do with the ability to process visual cues in a rapid manner.

The study composed a sample of 23 deaf children and 23 hearing children between the very young ages of 7 to 22 months. These children were presented with an image of a colorful object on a screen. The study simply timed children’s attention to the visual stimulus to see how quickly they could apprehend the needed information from that cue. Contrary to the belief that deaf children would develop a faster response to visual information, the study found quite the opposite. Indeed, they discovered that deaf infants looked at the image on average 30 seconds longer than the hearing infants, meaning that the deaf infants’ “look-away” rate was about 40% lower than that of hearing infants.  

The study might offer an explanation for the differences that have been reported in cognitive abilities between deaf and hearing children. If hearing children also gather necessary information from visual cues more quickly, they may be able to grasp more visual information in a given timeframe. That difference in processing speed might correlate with cognitive abilities in other areas, as well.

However, an alternate interpretation of the finding might look at the longer times looking at objects as evidence of a different type of intelligence altogether. If children with hearing impairments or deafness looked at visual stimuli for a longer amount of time, it is possible that they noticed more detail and specific features of those objects. That time spent gathering information might be richer and nuanced than hearing children who gave a brief glance. Though quickly grasping the general features of a visual object might be beneficial for gathering a lot of information in a short time span, there are other potential benefits for giving a long look at the details of an object. Fields such as art and aesthetics require acute attention to detail, and this ability to carefully look might correlate with other types of intelligence that cognitive measures are not equipped to measure.

Accommodating Diverse Learning Styles

With both interpretations of the results, this study emphasizes the importance for educators to accommodate the learning styles of many students and young people. Though traditional education has tended to emphasize the quick apprehension of visual information, other styles of education might be more beneficial for hearing-impaired and deaf children. Combining visual, tactile, kinesthetic, and other sensory information into pedagogy can capture the attention, memory, and understanding of a wide range of learners, including those who have hearing impairments. Further research is needed in this area to determine how much information is gathered from visual attention to an object, and this study is a necessary foundational step toward further findings. As we anticipate those results, we can remain aware of the variety of abilities in learning environments.   

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