Individuals who are users of British Sign Language have quicker reaction times in their peripheral vision, a study from the University of Sheffield’s Ophthalmology and Orthoptics department reports.

The findings demonstrate that hearing adults learning a visuospatial language such as BSL has a positive impact on visual field response, a trait highly beneficial in many sports and when driving.

Lead author Dr Charlotte Codina, Lecturer in Orthoptics at the University of Sheffield, said:

“We were surprised by the quicker response times of BSL interpreters, who haven’t necessarily known sign language since childhood, but have improved their peripheral visual sensitivity in learning this visual language and using it daily.

This shows that becoming a BSL interpreter is not only an interesting job, but it also has benefits such as making you more alert to changes in your peripheral field that could help when driving, playing sport or refereeing a football match for example."

Sensory Compensation

The pioneering research also found deaf adults have significantly better peripheral visionv and reaction times than both hearing adults and BSL users, providing scientific evidence to support the common belief that losing one of your five senses, such as hearing, can enhance others like sight or smell.

“We found that deaf adults have faster reaction times around the whole of the visual field, extending as far as 85 degrees peripherally near the edge of vision,” said Dr Codina. “Our study shows that deaf people have exceptional visual abilities that hearing adults do not. These findings support the common belief in sensory compensation."

Note that there is a subtle difference between sensory abilities and perceptual abilities, in terms of compensatory enhancement.

Also, in a 2002 study entitled Cross-Modal Plasticity: Where and How?, Daphne Bavelier and Helen J. Neville review the results of research on neuroplasticity alterations in people who have a particular sense with those who do not have that sense. Bavelier and Neville point out that the changes usually take place in areas of the brain that are normally involved in processing input from more than one sensory system.

Charlotte J. Codina et al. Peripheral Visual Reaction Time Is Faster in Deaf Adults and British Sign Language Interpreters than in Hearing Adults Frontiers in Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00050

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