When it gets late and we’ve been chatting with friends for what’s arguably too long, often we will find the conversation turning to a number of theoretical and philosophical questions. As we while away the hours, we can end up talking about life after death, the meaning of life and whether or not we’re all living in the Matrix. Another common topic of debate that comes up at this point is often: ‘how do deaf people think?’. This is yet another fascinating ‘unanswerable question’ that we’ve all wasted time on, but unlike the others it’s not actually all that unanswerable…
We all know that when we think we do so using a ‘monologue’ in our heads as we run through our situation and our options – just like the thought bubbles that we see cropping up in comic books. So then if you have never heard language and you don’t know what words sound like, how do you mull things over in your mind and do any self-reflection?
It may surprise you to learn that there actually is an answer to this question and that it’s surprisingly straight forward: deaf people think in sign language. Just as you might ‘hear’ yourself discussing topics in your head, a deaf person will ‘feel’ themselves signing and use this to come to a decision.
So that’s pretty straightforward, but then what happens when someone has been unable to learn sign language too? Hypothetically, if someone was deaf and blind and never learned brail… how would they internalise their thoughts?
Well this time the answer is: they wouldn’t. Studies have demonstrated that without language, we lose many of our higher brain functions and become less adept at planning, reasoning and problem solving. Our intelligence it seems is reliant on our having some form of language that feels innate and native to us.
Deaf People in the Past
One of the reasons we know this is that things were once much tougher for deaf people. Years ago, rather than teaching deaf people to sign, they were instead forced to speak out-loud. They could make words then through training, but were never able to ‘internalise’ the language as they had never actually heard what it sounded like.
As a result, it was then assumed that those with hearing problems also had mental difficulties – because they were never taught a language and so they never learned to reason or think in a structured manner. This demonstrates the great importance of language when it comes to thinking, but it also demonstrates just how much the way we speak shapes the way we think. If we could make our language more efficient and more powerful, then we would undoubtedly become faster and more efficient thinkers as well.