Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
There is much anecdotal suggestion of improved visual skills in congenitally deaf individuals. However, this claim has only been met by mixed results from careful investigations of visual skills in deaf individuals. Psychophysical assessments of visual functions have failed, for the most part, to validate the view of enhanced visual skills after deafness. Only a few studies have shown an advantage for deaf individuals in visual tasks. Interestingly, all of these studies share the requirement that participants process visual information in their peripheral visual field under demanding conditions of attention. This work has led us to propose that congenital auditory deprivation alters the gradient of visual attention from central to peripheral field by enhancing peripheral processing. This hypothesis was tested by adapting a search task from Lavie and colleagues in which the interference from distracting information on the search task provides a measure of attentional resources. These authors have established that during an easy central search for a target, any surplus attention remaining will involuntarily process a peripheral distractor that the subject has been instructed to ignore. Attentional resources can be measured by adjusting the difficulty of the search task to the point at which no surplus resources are available for the distractor. Through modification of this paradigm, central and peripheral attentional resources were compared in deaf and hearing individuals. Deaf individuals possessed greater attentional resources in the periphery but less in the center when compared to hearing individuals. Furthermore, based on results from native hearing signers, it was shown that sign language alone could not be responsible for these changes. We conclude that auditory deprivation from birth leads to compensatory changes within the visual system that enhance attentional processing of the peripheral visual field.