First coined by zoologist Donald Griffin in 1944, echolocation refers to a technique – often used by dolphins, whales, bats, and other animals – to determine the location of objects through the use of reflected sound. This can be very useful for navigation, hunting, and foraging. So, what about us? Are we capable of echolocation? As it turns out, yes. Humans are capable of echolocation, as demonstrated by numerous visually impaired individuals who have learned to perceive their environment through sound waves.
Actively creating sounds by actions such as tapping your feet, snapping your fingers, clapping your hands, or clicking your tongue helps people detect objects in their environment by sensing their echoes. Many blind people passively use echoes from the world around them to gauge their surroundings, but with training, they can also develop the ability to use echolocation. One such man is Daniel Kish, president of World Access for the Blind. In a technique he calls “flash sonar,” Kish can identify his surroundings by generating vocal clicks and using their echoes to move around. In fact, he is able to ride a bicycle, travel, and hike in unfamiliar terrain by himself through the use of echolocation.
With the proper training, people with normal vision are also capable of echolocation. Technical advances have made it possible to scan the brain while echolocation is being performed, revealing that humans utilize the “visual” parts of their brains to interpret and process information from echoes. Interestingly, success at echolocation has also been linked to attentional capacity.
Another way to perceive the world:
- As the founder of World Access for the Blind, it is Daniel Kish’s goal to teach human echolocation to blind people all over the world. So far, the nonprofit group has taught 500 blind children to "see" with their ears.
- Ben Underwood, born in 1992 in California, had his eyes removed at age three due to retinal cancer. As a young child, he taught himself echolocation via tongue clicking, allowing him to run, play football and basketball, and go rollerblading and skateboarding. This led many people to describe him as a "superhero." Sadly, Underwood died of retinal cancer in 2009 at age 17.
- Echolocation is the subject of the 2012 film Imagine, in which the protagonist teaches echolocation to students at a clinic for the visually impaired.