Information Processing In Hearing And Deaf Infants

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We all learn differently, whether that be because we have a learning difference or because we prefer to read about a topic rather than listen to a lecture on it. For most of us, however, we process information quite similarly and use similar neurological pathways in our brains to understand complex topics despite our preferences for a particular learning style. That being said, new research is showing us that deaf infants actually process information in a totally different way than their hearing counterparts.

The Study

Cognitive development in infancy is incredibly important for our long-term intellectual functioning. Differences or abnormalities in cognitive development at a young age can result in a whole host of intellectual or developmental disorders, even if they are promptly identified and treated.

Children with sensory deficits, such as those who are born deaf, face additional cognitive development challenges when compared with their hearing counterparts. While there is a fairly large body of research on preschool and school-aged children that investigates the cognitive differences between deaf and hearing children, there is little research about when these differences start to emerge in development.

A new study, conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University, sought to investigate this very issue. The researchers who conducted this study were the first to compare the visual processing skills of hearing and deaf infants and what they found is quite interesting.

Essentially, the researchers found that deaf and hearing infants visually processed information very differently, even though all of the infants in the study had no known visual sensory deficits. The deaf infants took longer to become familiar with new objects than the hearing infants. This suggests that deaf infants were processing visual information differently than hearing infants, despite the fact that there was no auditory information involved.

To test this visual processing, the researchers focused on the fact that when babies successfully “encode” or familiarize themselves with a visual object, they lose interest in it and look away. Using this principle, the researchers showed 23 deaf and 23 hearing infants, between the ages of 7 and 22 months, a colorful object on a screen. After testing all of the infants, the researchers found that the deaf infants looked at the object for 30 seconds longer, on average than their hearing counterparts. Plus, the deaf infants looked-away from the object approximately 40% less often than the hearing infants did.

Both of these statistics suggest that deaf infants process visual information differently, and perhaps more slowly than hearing infants do. To many of this may seem counterintuitive as conventional wisdom teaches us that deaf children can compensate for their lack of hearing abilities by having a keener sense of sight and visual processing. This study shows us that this might not be the case.

That being said, the study does not suggest that deaf infants and deaf children are slow learners. Rather, the researchers posit that a deaf child simply spends more time visually processing an object and learning more about it than a hearing child would. Since deaf children can’t rely on their ability to hear to gather sensory data, they may be trying to visually process more about an object than a hearing child needs to.

Future Implications

While this study may not seem like groundbreaking research, it actually has the potential to change how we educate, raise, and treat infants and children with hearing loss. Since we now know that these children spend more time visually processing information than a hearing child would, we can better tailor our educational curriculum and teaching methods to meet the visual learning needs of these students. Doing so can help these children reach their fullest potential by allowing them to learn and process information in a way that works best for their brains.

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