Can Humans Echolocate? Truth and Myths

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Imagine walking through a pitch-black room without bumping into anything. Or, for example, going through a crowded street with your eyes closed. Sounds like a superhero power, right? Well, it turns out, this ability isn’t just for bats or dolphins; humans might have this superpower too. Yes, you read that right! Just like bats use sound waves to fly, some people are learning to “see” their environment using sound. Intrigued? Let’s explore human echolocation and uncover how this extraordinary skill is changing lives.

What is echolocation?

Echolocation is a biological sonar used by several kinds of animals to navigate and understand their environment by emitting sounds and listening for the echoes that bounce back from objects. This technique allows them to determine the size, shape, distance, and texture of objects, even in complete darkness. Bats and dolphins are well-known for their adept use of echolocation, which they employ to hunt prey, avoid obstacles, and navigate complex environments. The sounds produced, often too high in frequency for human ears to detect, provide these animals with detailed information about their surroundings, making echolocation a fascinating adaptation in the animal kingdom.

How do animals echolocate?

Some animals have the amazing ability to “see” with sounds. They make special noises that travel until they hit something and then bounce back. By listening to these echoes, the animals can tell what’s around them. For example, how big or far away something is, and even what it’s made of. This helps to get around in difficult areas and find food.

  • Take bats, for example. They let out super high-pitched noises from their mouths or noses that we can’t even hear. They use the echoes from these sounds to fly in the dark without bumping into anything and to catch bugs for dinner.
  • Dolphins and certain whales do something similar but in the water. They make clicking sounds that shoot forward from their vocal cords and go through their forehead. It works kind of like a camera lens to keep the sounds focused. When these clicks hit something, they bounce back as echoes. Dolphins pick up these echoes with their lower jaw and the sound gets sent to their ears, helping them “see” underwater.

The ability for echolocation is super special and really helps these animals do well in their homes.

How do humans use echolocation?

Psychology News Magazine has recently conducted research. Humans, much like bats and dolphins, use echolocation by emitting sounds and listening to the echoes that return from surrounding objects to navigate their environment. The technique involves creating sounds such as mouth clicks, finger snaps, whistles, cane taps, or the sound of footsteps. These sounds, unlike the ultrasonic emissions used by bats and dolphins, fall within the range of human hearing. Although anyone can learn to echolocate, the most adept users tend to be individuals who are blind.

The preferred sound for skilled human echolocators is often mouth clicks, which are brief and spread out similarly to the light from a flashlight. The research shows that individuals adjust these clicks based on the strength of the echoes they receive or to drown out background noise, demonstrating the adaptive nature of human echolocation.

Furthermore, the researchers explored the relationship between echolocation and body movement. They used motion capture technology, similar to what’s used in CGI films like “Avatar” or “The Polar Express.” By tracking movements with reflective markers and cameras, they have observed that echolocation can facilitate walking as effectively as vision does. For instance, blind individuals experienced in echolocation can walk at speeds comparable to sighted individuals and navigate around obstacles with similar proficiency.

How does it work

Vision and hearing work in similar ways because both involve sensing energy waves that bounce off objects and come back to us. With vision, we see light waves that reflect off things and enter our eyes. With hearing, we pick up sound waves that echo off surfaces and reach our ears. Both our eyes and ears send complex patterns of this reflected energy to our brains, which help us understand our surroundings. When we talk about sound, these reflected waves are called echoes.

Echoes can tell us a lot about the space around us, almost like how light does. For example, someone who is blind can use echoes to “see” detailed features of the environment from a distance, way beyond what a cane could reach. Echoes can reveal the shape, size, and even the material of objects and features like walls, doorways, steps, and much more. They can tell us where things are, how big and what shape they are, and if they’re solid or not. Knowing if something is to your left or right, in front or behind, above or below helps you figure out its location. Understanding if an object is tall, short, wide, or narrow helps with its dimension.

By putting all this information together, you can start to picture what’s around you. A tall, thin shape might be a pole, while a shape that’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom could be a tree. A very wide and tall shape might be a building. A shape that’s wide in the middle could be a parked car. Something low and wide might be a step or a curb. And if something starts off low but gets taller as it goes back, it’s probably a set of stairs. How solid something feels (like a table vs. a bush or a fence) adds even more detail to what you can “see” with echoes.

Some studies have looked at how the brain handles echolocation. They found that blind people who are really good at using echoes show activity in the part of the brain that usually processes what we see. This suggests that their brains have adapted to use this part for echolocation. In one study, researchers recorded the clicks and echoes used by blind echolocators to identify objects. When they played these recordings back while scanning the echolocators’ brains, they found activity in the visual part of the brain, even though these people were only listening to echoes. This didn’t happen with sighted people who don’t use echolocation, showing how the brains of blind echolocators might reorganize to process sound in a way that’s more like seeing.

However, it’s still not completely clear how much this brain activity in the visual cortex helps with echolocation. Sighted people can also learn to echolocate, but their brains don’t show the same patterns, suggesting they might use different parts of the brain for this skill.

Can people learn echolocation?

Researchers at Durham University were curious about how well visually impaired people could pick up the skill of echolocation, and whether age would play a role in learning it. Over a 10-week course, they trained 12 blind and 14 sighted volunteers, aged 21 to 79, in using mouth clicks to echolocate. This training included recognizing the size of objects, understanding their orientation, and navigating virtually.

By the end of the program, all volunteers got better at using mouth clicks to find their way around, with some even reaching the skill level of echolocation experts who had been practicing for a decade.

The study found that being older or blind didn’t hold the participants back from learning echolocation. This suggests that this training could be valuable for those beginning to lose their sight.

Dr. Lore Thaler, who led the study, noted that participants reported benefits beyond just improved navigation. They felt more mobile, independent, and happier, showing that the lab’s findings had real-world impacts. Dr. Thaler expressed enthusiasm about offering echolocation training to individuals who might lose their sight due to progressive eye conditions, even if they still have usable vision.

Before the study, all blind volunteers were already using guide dogs or canes for mobility. While echolocation training isn’t typically part of rehabilitation for the blind or visually impaired — possibly due to concerns about the social acceptability of making clicking sounds — the study’s results suggest that participants felt comfortable using this technique in public. In fact, a follow-up survey revealed that all blind participants felt their mobility had improved post-training, with 83% reporting enhanced independence and wellbeing.

Dr. Thaler was particularly struck by the positive feedback from blind participants, highlighting the significant impact of the training on their lives.

As we come to the end of our exploration of human echolocation, it’s clear this remarkable skill really changes how we think about our senses. Echolocation isn’t just interesting; it shows us just how adaptable and strong the human spirit can be. For those who learn it, echolocation opens up new doors, offering a kind of freedom and a fresh way to understand the world around them. It also teaches us an important lesson: our limitations are often not as fixed as we might think. Echolocation, whether it’s used by people who can’t see or by those just curious to try a different way of sensing the world, invites us all to reconsider what it means to ‘see.’ It encourages us to tap into the amazing abilities of our minds to discover the world in new and meaningful ways.

Who can echolocate?

Anyone, whether they are blind or can see, can learn how to echolocate. However, the most skilled at doing this are usually people who are blind, and they often use mouth clicks to navigate their surroundings.

Is echolocation better than sight?

Sight is better for seeing large objects like cliffs and trees. Echolocation, though, is better for detecting small things like insects, even when there’s still some light around.

How do blind people learn echolocation?

A few people, especially those who have been blind from birth, have learned to understand their environment by making clicking noises with their mouths and listening to the echoes that come back. Scientists are now starting to really understand how this works, as reported by New Scientist.

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