Do Deaf People Have an Inner Voice?
Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing from an illness at eighteen months. She learned language using the Tadoma method, whereby she felt rather than heard another person speak. Later, she learned to communicate by making signs with her hands. Looking back, she opened a window to the world of utter deafness.
‘Before my teacher came to me,’ she said ‘I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another’
Do Deaf People Have an Inner Voice?
Following on that link, we learn that language is the foundation of self-awareness, abstract thought, and memory. If you like, it is the ‘device driver’ of our brain’s physical hardware.
Centuries ago, philosopher René Descartes attempted to prove the existence of a creator god. However, he first had to prove he himself existed, or else that being might be a product of his imagination.
After quite some mind-wrestling, he announced ‘cogito ergo sum’ meaning ‘I think, therefore I am’. From what we have written so far we can deduce two things. These are (a) the words we learned on our mothers’ knees were the birth of our conscious state. And (b) without them we would be in Helen Keller’s ‘no world’.
Can a Deaf Person Hear Their Inner Voice?
Hearing people think in language, because words are the store of their knowledge. Bilingual people are a step ahead, because they can speak and think in two languages. And this strengthens their mental muscle although they need to consciously decide to switch tracks.
Psychology Today tells us totally deaf people who have learned sign language or received cochlear implants think in terms of those learned symbols. They cite one such person saying:
‘I have a 'voice' in my head, but it is not sound-based. I am a visual being, so in my head, I either see American Sign Language (ASL) signs, or pictures, or sometimes printed words.’
Another says ‘My inner voice is figuratively speaking to me, and I hear it as well as lip read it.’ So in this case, they are thinking in terms of both sounds and images. Therefore, deaf people can ‘hear’ themselves think in terms of learned symbols their brain ‘hardware’ joins up.
How Age of Hearing Loss Affects a Deaf Person’s Inner Voice
Psychology Today suggests the age that hearing loss occurs has an effect on the composition on the inner voice. Typically hearing, unilingual people think in the ‘mother tongue’ they learned from their parents, although they may also use familiar images too.
However, these ‘typical’ people have a richness of thought ‘non-typical’ hearing people may lack. Psychology Today speaks of the acoustic properties being ‘stripped away’ if they do not exist in their experience. Hence, while a deaf person can ‘hear’ their inner voice, this may be in a condensed form reduced to core meanings.
The Long Journey Away from the Prison of Deafness
We quoted Helen Keller’s words from the website Qrius at the beginning of this piece. They propose born-deaf people who lacked early remedial education ‘will be significantly handicapped mentally until they learn a structured language, even though there is nothing actually wrong with their brains’.
One of our team members had a deaf friend at school who learned to lip read, and then speak. He recalls how their speech was a staccato of words without an emotion joining them. Therefore, to his shame, he remembers thinking their mental capacity was limited.
We can also make these mistakes about hard-of-hearing people, writing them off as ‘old fools’ when there’s a perfectly good brain behind them. Our clients chuckle how this ends when they are wear Blue Angels hearing aids.
A Significant Sense of Self and Better Memory
Qrius makes the intriguing point deaf people, who develop an inner voice after learning to communicate, have ‘significantly more sense of self and better memory, and the like over those who have no language’.
However, they may never reach their brains’ full potential without stimulation of their language centers while they are still young. Even when we are old the experience of hearing improves our mental functions as we can better communicate with family and friends. Therefore, whatever your level of hearing may be, your take-away should be this.
We, all of us, need to experience some form of language while we are young, especially kids with severe, or total hearing loss. We close with a few more words by Helen Keller.
‘Once I knew only darkness and stillness... my life was without past or future... but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.’