Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

Do blind people have super senses – or just exceptional skills? A point of view!

Do Blind people actually have super senses?

A glance at one point of view

It is a very common and persistent idea; that blind people have super hearing and other enhanced senses. For example; a blind person will somehow, almost supernaturally, know you were talking about them. A blind person can, with a freaky uncanny precision, tell when you are about to touch him or her, or when you simply move around. They know. A blind person can sometimes turn to you and make eye-contact when talking to you.

Is that disturbing or what? They just know!

Do blind people acquire some kind of extra sense to make up for having no vision? Do they actually have, for example, super hearing? Let me give you my view on this myth.

The answer is: No.

And yes.

Human beings who were born blind, or somehow lost their vision later in life do not have senses that sighted human beings do not. That is pretty much a given. Anyone with any common sense can tell you that. As defined on Wikipedia’s page about “sense”, this is what the majority of humans are born with:

Humans have a multitude of senses. Sight (ophthalmoception), hearing (audioception), taste (gustaoception), smell (olfacoception or olfacception), and touch (tactioception) are the five traditionally recognized. While the ability to detect other stimuli beyond those governed by the traditional senses exists, including temperature (thermoception), kinesthetic sense (proprioception), pain (nociception), balance (equilibrioception), acceleration (kinesthesioception)[

This does not mean that these senses can’t change to a certain degree over time or that some have senses that seem stronger than others, someone’s ability to sense movement and space can vary widely. Some can taste that pinch of nutmeg in the moussaka while others don’t. It is the way of things that humans are a varied bunch, with varied abilities, and what would the world be without that beautiful variety? But basically we are all the same type of creature with the same set up of genes.

So why do I say the answer is yes? That the blind do have enhanced senses?

It is simple. We train for it. Consider this: Any audio engineer with half a skill will tell you that the most important part of working with sound is to listen. Any decent author will tell you that the best way to learn to write is to write. A marathon runner will tell you that the best way to practice for a marathon is, you guessed it, to run. Training, practice, persistence, and ten thousand hours of it will take you to the top.

When a person is robbed of the visual world, the surroundings turn into a relentless, merciless and constantly nagging personal trainer that hands out no periods of rest and no days off. Life is a training ground and when training is constant it doesn’t take long to get those ten thousand hours as prescribed by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliars (2010) under the belt. It’s just, kind of inevitable. It’s practice 24/7.

So, with those ten thousand hours in mind, let’s quickly look at the numbers.

Assuming that the average person sleeps, or is otherwise indisposed, on an average nine hours per day. Fifteen hours of that day are then spent in training to make up for the senses not available. To end up with ten thousand hours and be very very good at something one needs to be training for 666 days. So according to this absolutely non scientific hypothesis, a person born blind is an expert blind person at the age of two. Isn’t that something? Hahaha. Joking aside and on a personal note; I’ve been visually impaired and then completely blind for just over ten years, meaning I have 5,475 hours per year over a period of ten years. That gives me 54,750 hours of training for this non-visual existence. I aught to be better at listening than most people. I should be better at sensing movements, feeling textures, smelling hints of spice in something I eat. I should be able to sense temperature changes, airflows, and hear what people are talking about across the room.

And I do. That is the point. I do sense people move around me, I hear the slightest murmur, I can feel the imperfections in a piece of furniture, I smell that slight evidence in milk on the verge of going bad. I train for it, every day, thus I’m good at it. Does that give me an advantage? At times it absolutely does. Is it supernatural? Nah, I’m not that lucky. It would be cool if it was. Fact is that I pay attention to sounds in a way sighted people rarely do, that’s why I hear things sighted people rarely hear. Makes sense?

So it’s all good then? No cons to this forced skill>?

The drawbacks of having arguably more acute senses are exactly the same as the advantages. I can hear people murmur about me from across the room, I can smell that awful stink from the milk about to go bad, I’m never happy with the finish of some wood furniture I’m polishing, and sudden movements and temperature changes make me a bit nervous. So no, it’s not all good. And it’s not all bad either. But truth is it’s really hard to unlearn over fifty thousand hours of daily practice.

But does that mean sighted people are at a disadvantage?

In a way, yes. Having sight means that training needs to be intentional. Visual stimuli must be in some way ignored and attention must focus on the other senses. That’s not an easy thing to do. In meditation there is often an aspect of growing one’s awareness of the surroundings. With eyes closed, the body calm, attention bypasses anything visual and a different world opens up in place of all the distractions. And distraction is exactly what it is. Joe and Graham makes the point very well in the The dangers of mixing with your eyes – episode of the Simply recording podcast.
Meditation is just an example of methods to make way for sensory training, and there are certainly many ways to do it if the will is there. For example ear training will make you hear better. Even if meditation is not the thing and even if it is in general harder for sighted people to focus on the auditory world doesn’t mean that sighted people can’t be just as supernaturally good at other senses like hearing. A musician or an audio engineer for example gets this training in by way of passion for sound. They can’t help living that training ground any more than a blind person can. They live it. Most people don’t.

One point of view concluded

. . A wholly non-visual world is a difficult concept for someone with sight, and that is understandable. It’s scary to consider and impossible to understand. Thus the stubborn myths of blind having super senses. We, as humans, fear what we don’t understand and will always try to place the unknown into a category that can be understood and explained. The myth is in this case not that far separated from the actual facts as far as the end result goes. It’s just not all that magical.

Blind people hear better because they are better at hearing

And perhaps it’s as simple as trying to understand how a concert pianist can play like that. It’s amazing. How can he possibly be that good? It’s almost supernatural what he does with his hands. Does that mean he is a super-human being?

Nah, chances are that he has at least ten thousand hours of practice and that is what makes him good at playing the piano. I have fifty thousand hours of practice in being blind. And that, dear reader, is what makes me good at being blind.