DEAF PEOPLE'S INNER VOICE
by Hannah Holmes, Discovery Online
Not just those who learn to talk -- any deaf person may find that annoying rattle of gibberish knocking around in her skull. The brain, it seems, is determined to natter to itself, whether it does it in English, Swahili or some private and non-transferable language.
For starters, though, rest assured that you can cogitate, daydream and reminisce without employing any language system at all. "Have you ever been driving along in your car, and four thousand things are going through your head at once?" asks University of California at Irvine neurobiologist Greg Hickok. "There's no way you can think all that in English. And then there are those times when you say, 'I just can't find the words for it.' "
But when it comes time to capture and analyze those butterflies of thought, a language does come in handy.
And sign language works as well as any other. In fact, Dr. Hickok's work has shown that sign language, despite its physical and spatial nature, operates out of the same brain departments as spoken language. People who sign are not performing a physical translation of another language -- they are using a complete, self-contained language.
Now the question of whether a deaf person's inner voice communicates in sign language or English or Swahili is a complicated one. Most Americans who are born deaf learn to read and write English, in addition to some variety of sign language. Some learn to speak and lipread instead of signing. Other people may go deaf after learning the sounds of speech.
But when I stumbled across an Internet discussion of the "inner voice" question, I found people who were born deaf but who dreamed in spoken English.
I e-mailed Peter Hauser, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at Gallaudet University. No one seems to have studied the question of deaf people's inner language, but Hauser, who is deaf, responded with insights I hadn't anticipated. Most interesting was his assertion that deaf people who were born to deaf parents, and who read well, create sounds in their heads as they learn to read.
"My best answer to this," Hauser wrote, "is that the brain has a special capacity to develop phonological representations, even when it does not have auditory input. The representations might be dramatically different from what hearing individuals hear. Nevertheless, they function in the mind as 'sounds.'" Deaf schizophrenics, he continued, have auditory hallucinations, and blind schizophrenics have visual ones.
The brain, it seems, has a mind of its own.
So yes, deaf people can have an auditory inner voice. They can also have a signing one.
"I asked my undergraduate students last week about their dreams," Hauser wrote to me. "Sometimes they are signing in their dreams, and sometimes they are speaking, even though some of them never speak in the so-called real world. BUT, they do not derive the message from the 'speaking' or 'signing' of others in their dreams. It's like the message is being transmitted through ESP!"
I had asked Hauser, who also studies American Sign Language linguistics, if the Internet was inspiring slang signs. He's encountered none, but told me about a sign with no English equal -- "a squeezing gesture with your hand in front of your neck. If, for example, you tell me that deaf people cannot have an inner voice, and I show you that they can, you would make that sign. It means 'Gulp. You got me.'"