Blind people excel at serial recall

Blindness from birth fosters a superior ability to learn and remember ordered sequences of information, a new study indicates.

Blind people recall much longer word sequences than sighted individuals do, report Noa Raz of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and his colleagues. The researchers propose that the advantage stems from blind people constantly practicing serial-memory strategies in daily life. For instance, a sightless person gets from one place to another by remembering and noting specific nonvisual cues along a particular route.

The researchers studied 19 adults who had been born blind and 19 adults with normal vision. Each volunteer heard a list of 20 words and was instructed to recall the words and their original order. This procedure was repeated four times to promote learning of the list.

In various sessions, blind individuals recalled 20 to 35 percent more words from the list than sighted people did. That advantage more than doubled for correctly remembering sequences of 2 or more words, and nearly quadrupled for recalling sequences of 11 or more words, the investigators report in the July 3 Current Biology.

Blind participants displayed better memories than did their sighted counterparts for all words, not just the first and last ones in the list. In the scientists’ view, this suggests that the memory success of the blind relies on thinking of the list as a word chain and on forming meaningful associations between adjacent words.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.