Author: Matt Kinsey
Institution: Boston University
Date: August 2004
Bach, Handel, even the late great Ray Charles – all were icons famous for their contributions to music despite living with acute forms of blindness. Though the notion that sightless artists compose more finely-tuned pieces than sighted artists seems rooted in musical lore, scientists from the University of Montreal and McGill University have published research results lending valid claim to the myth in the current issue of Nature.
In a study led by Dr. Pascal Belin, assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Montreal in Quebec, groups were tested for their ability to note changes between paired tones, including variations of pitch and duration. Belin compared persons in three categories: those blind after age 5, those with full visual capabilities, and those blind at birth or before age 2 – deemed "early blind." Participants ranged in age from birth to 45.
"Early blind" subjects surpassed the non-blind and "late blind" groups in every trial, cognizant of the slightest shift between high and low tones. No significant differences were recorded among the "late blind" and full-sighted groups.
"What we found at this task: Blind subjects are much better than the controls, but only if they became blind at an early age," explains Belin.
These results may hint at the brain’s capacity to reorganize in early development while complex connections behind the five senses are still forming. According to Belin, an inactive visual cortex may serve as free space into which the auditory cortex may expand – thus sharpening auditory perception and generating a more refined processing of sound.
"In normal brains these auditory connections are gradually eliminated. In the ‘early blind,’ they might be preserved and used," states Belin.