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Superior verbal but not nonverbal memory in congenital blindness

Abstract

Previous studies suggest that people who are congenitally blind outperform sighted people on some memory tasks. Whether blindness-associated memory advantages are specific to verbal materials or are also observed with nonverbal sounds has not been determined. Congenitally blind individuals (n = 20) and age and education matched blindfolded sighted controls (n = 22) performed a series of auditory memory tasks. These included: verbal forward and backward letter spans, a complex letter span with intervening equations, as well as two matched recognition tasks: one with verbal stimuli (i.e., letters) and one with nonverbal complex meaningless sounds. Replicating previously observed findings, blind participants outperformed sighted people on forward and backward letter span tasks. Blind participants also recalled more letters on the complex letter span task despite the interference of intervening equations. Critically, the same blind participants showed larger advantages on the verbal as compared to the nonverbal recognition task. These results suggest that blindness selectively enhances memory for verbal material. Possible explanations for blindness-related verbal memory advantages include blindness-induced memory practice and ‘visual’ cortex recruitment for verbal processing.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the study participants, the blind community, as well as the National Federation of the Blind for their assistance with this research. We also wish to thank Rashi Pant, Brianna Aheimer, and other members of the Neuroplasticity and Development Lab for assisting with collecting data. We gratefully acknowledge funding from a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1321846) (to Karen Arcos) and a University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellowship to (Karen Arcos). We also acknowledge a Grant from the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health (1R01EY027352-01A), as well as a Science of Learning Grant from Johns Hopkins University. The authors are solely responsible for the content; it does not necessarily represent funding agencies' official views.

Funding

A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1321846) and a University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellowship supported (Karen Arcos). A Grant from the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health (1R01EY027352-01A), as well as a Science of Learning Grant from Johns Hopkins University also supported this research. The authors have no financial or proprietary interests in any material discussed in this article.

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Correspondence to Karen Arcos.

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The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest or competing interests.

Availability of data and material

Data is available in an Open Science Framework (OSF) project (https://osf.io/etgyh).

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Data analysis code is available in an OSF project (https://osf.io/etgyh).

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Communicated by Melvyn A. Goodale.

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Arcos, K., Harhen, N., Loiotile, R. et al. Superior verbal but not nonverbal memory in congenital blindness. Exp Brain Res 240, 897–908 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-021-06304-4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-021-06304-4

Keywords

  • Congenitally blind
  • Verbal
  • Nonverbal
  • Memory
  • Recognition memory