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Deaf people’s enhanced visual attention compensates for auditory loss, studies show

June 10, 2011
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Washington, D.C. [June 8, 2011] – Visual Attention and Deafness, a research brief published by the Gallaudet University’s Visual Language and Visual Learning Science of Learning Center (VL2) and authored by Elizabeth Hirshorn,* shows that people who are deaf develop enhanced selective visual attention in their peripheral vision as they get older. And while it is commonly thought that deaf people must see better than hearing people, the research proves this is not the case. It is not deaf people’s vision that is enhanced, rather their visual attention. 

Studies by VL2 researchers Matt Dye, Peter Hauser, and Daphne Bavelier show that individuals who are deaf develop an enhanced ability to detect-and be distracted by-moving stimuli in their peripheral vision.  This means, according to researchers, “deaf individuals are not necessarily more distractible but are more distracted by peripheral events.” Hearing people, on the other hand, are more distracted by events they see head-on, that is, in their central visual field. 

Distractions, whether coming from peripheral or central vision sources, can be helpful as well as harmful. Researchers believe that deaf people’s enhanced peripheral vision compensates for their lack of auditory cues, which are what hearing persons experience when they hear a car approaching or a door opening. This redistribution of visual attention to the periphery was found in both signing and non-signing deaf children, and it was not found in hearing signers.  The reasons for this adaptation are still being researched, but it is thought that the deprived auditory brain areas reorganize in order to better process visual information.

This information is especially useful to educators of deaf children. For example, starting around age 11, when the redistribution of visual attention begins to develop, deaf children do best in classroom environments where distractions are predictable and consistent, class sizes are small and seating is arranged in a semi-circle. In addition, learning to read English-always a challenge for children who are deaf-is further complicated for deaf students who tend to pay more attention to letters and words in their peripheral vision rather than, as hearing students do, focusing on the words and letters in the center of their visual field. To offset the potential for confusion, some recommend a ‘windowed reading’ technique that allows students to see words in smaller chunks rather than in complete sentences.

“It is research like this that provides educators of deaf children with data critical to the development of new, more effective teaching strategies,” said Gallaudet University President T. Alan Hurwitz. “We are rightfully proud of the contributions of VL2 researchers to the science of learning.”

To read Visual Attention and Deafness, visit the VL2 website.

Established at Gallaudet in 2005 through a grant from the National Science Foundation VL2 is one of six Science of Learning Centers located throughout the country. It is an international center that includes researchers and educators from many locations and disciplines. A primary goal of VL2 is to include teams of deaf and hearing researchers from multiple disciplines to help define and carry out the research agenda. The center’s three research initiatives center on understanding visual language and learning within deaf children and adults.

* Hirshorn is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester studying the effects of deafness and language experience on the underlying cognitive mechanisms involved in reading and memory.

**Although deafness leads to enhanced peripheral vision attention-and the neurological data substantiates this fact-it does not change all aspects of vision or any other sense. For example, the ability to discriminate among shades of gray or distinguish between quickly flashing items are similar in both deaf and hearing individuals.

Information in this news release is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number SBE-0541953. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Contact: Mercy Coogan  mercy.coogan@gallaudet.edu

10 June 2011

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