Have you ever wondered how bats can fly in the dark without bumping into things? They use echolocation, a mechanism that allows them to emit sounds and listen to the echoes that bounce back from the objects around them. This way, they can get information about the size, shape, distance, and texture of the objects, and avoid obstacles or catch prey.
But did you know that humans can also learn how to echolocate? Yes, you read that right. According to a study published in PLOS ONE, both blind and sighted people can acquire this skill with enough training, using their tongue to make clicking sounds and interpreting the echoes that come back from the environment.
The study involved 26 participants, 12 of whom were blind and 14 of whom were sighted. They underwent 20 sessions of echolocation training over 10 weeks, where they learned how to detect the presence or absence of an object, identify its location and shape, and navigate through a virtual maze. The researchers measured their performance on various tasks and compared it with seven expert echolocators who had been using this skill for more than a decade.
The results showed that all participants improved their echolocation skills significantly, and some even reached expert levels. The researchers also found that echolocation training enhanced the participants’ auditory perception and spatial cognition.
“I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback,” says Lore Thaler, the lead researcher of the study, in a statement. “People who took part in our study reported that the training in click-based echolocation had a positive effect on their mobility, independence and well-being, attesting that the improvements we observed in the lab transcended into positive life benefits outside the lab.”
Echolocation can be a life-changing skill for blind and visually impaired people, as it can help them navigate the world with more confidence and autonomy. It can also be useful for sighted people in situations where vision is limited, such as in dark or foggy environments.
“What made us explore it in the first place was that it is just such a fascinating skill, and that it has such great potential to help people who are blind and to investigate neuroplasticity on a more general level,” writes Thaler to Gizmodo’s Ed Cara in an email. “We also plan to investigate how teaching and learning of this skill would scale up from the lab to professional instruction (i.e. how do people learn and benefit when they are not trained by researchers but by visual impairment professionals).”
If you want to learn how to echolocate yourself, you can start by making sounds such as mouth clicks, finger snaps, humming, or cane taps. Then try to listen carefully to the echoes that come back from the objects around you. You might be surprised by how much information you can get from sound alone.
Echolocation is not only a remarkable ability that humans share with some animals, but also a fascinating way to explore the world with a different sense. As Thaler says, “It is fun and anyone can learn it.”
– Humans Can Now Walk With Eyes Closed Through a 10-Week Echolocation Training, ScienceTimes, June 20, 2022
– Echolocation: How It Works and How to Learn It, WebMD, November 2, 2022
– People Can Learn Echolocation in Ten Weeks, Smithsonian Magazine, June 4, 2021
– Humans Can Learn How to ‘Echolocate’ in Just 10 Weeks, Experiment Shows, ScienceAlert, June 4, 2021