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Early-blind human subjects localize sound sources better than sighted subjects


Do blind persons develop capacities of their remaining senses that exceed those of sighted individuals? Besides anecdotal suggestions, two views based on experimental studies have been advanced1. The first proposes that blind individuals should be severely impaired, given that vision is essential to develop spatial concepts2. The second suggests that compensation occurs through the remaining senses, allowing them to develop an accurate concept of space3. Here we investigate how an ecologically critical function, namely three-dimensional spatial mapping, is carried out by early-blind individuals with or without residual vision. Subjects were tested under monaural and binaural listening conditions. We find that early-blind subjects can map the auditory environment with equal or better accuracy than sighted subjects. Furthermore, unlike sighted subjects, they can correctly localize sounds monaurally. Surprisingly, blind individuals with residual peripheral vision localized sounds less precisely than sighted or totally blind subjects, confirming that compensation varies according to the aetiology and extent of blindness4. Our results resolve a long-standing controversy in that they provide behavioural evidence that totally blind individuals have better auditory ability than sighted subjects, enabling them to compensate for their loss of vision.

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Figure 1: Binaural sound localization performance obtained in each hemifield.
Figure 2: Monaural sound localization performance obtained in one hemifield.
Figure 3: Percentage of trials in which the sounds were correctly lateralized in the binaural condition and in each of the monaural conditions when the sound was presented ipsilaterally and controlaterally to the obstructed ear: control groups; four totally blind subjects who localized the sound with a positional bias similar to that found in the controls; four totally blind subjects who correctly localized the sound; and three blind subjects with residual vision.


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We thank the Regroupement pour les Aveugles et Amblyopes de Montréal (RAAM), especially S. Poulin and F. Boulet, for their assistance in recruiting participants. This work was supported by grants from NSERC and FCAR.

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Correspondence to F. Lepore.

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Lessard, N., Paré, M., Lepore, F. et al. Early-blind human subjects localize sound sources better than sighted subjects. Nature 395, 278–280 (1998).

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