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How Blind People Can Use Echolocation

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 02, 2022

Echolocation is a mechanism that can allow you to navigate the environment by using sound instead of sight. Animals like bats and dolphins are famous for their echolocation skills — however, not many people know that humans can also learn this skill. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Echolocation?

Echolocation is a mechanism that allows specific animals to get information about the environment through sound. Bats and dolphins are the common echolocation examples in the animal kingdom, but other organisms, like some orcas and whales, also use it. 

Like sonar, echolocation works by projecting sound and listening to the reflection it makes when it hits the different objects of the environment. These reflections allow the animal to get information regarding each object’s size, shape, distance, texture, and other important variables. 

Many people think that bats are blind, but this isn’t true. Instead, they mostly use echolocation because they are usually only awake at night. This mechanism allows them to catch their prey in the dark and determine if there are any obstacles in their flight path.

Dolphins also use echolocation to catch their prey, although how this works isn’t entirely clear. They don’t typically use it to avoid obstacles, as this isn’t a problem in the ocean. However, more research is needed to understand dolphin echolocation.

How Does Echolocation Work on Humans?

Surprisingly, echolocation can be learned as a skill. Experts have found that the human brain has areas that are dedicated to processing echoes. They also estimate that about 20 to 30 percent of blind people learn how to echolocate at some point in their lives.

While animals like bats and dolphins have specific sounds that they use for echolocating, humans can pick whatever sound they want to use as their sonar emission. Finger snaps, mouth clicks, and humming are some of the most common echolocating noises. Blind people also often use short and quick cane taps to echolocate.

Studies show that echolocation in humans can be so precise that they can distinguish textures such as metal through sound. Similarly, experts at echolocating can precisely identify minimal gaps between objects placed more than a meter away.

Experienced echolocators can also adjust the intensity of their sounds to avoid specific environmental variables that would make them hard to hear. For example, a person can make louder mouth clicks while on the street to listen to the echoes over the sound of traffic.

Benefits of Learning Echolocation

Learning how to echolocate can significantly benefit the everyday lives of blind people. Here are some of the benefits of learning how to echolocate:

Better mobility. Studies show that echolocation significantly improves special awareness, increasing mobility and your understanding of the environment. For example, learning how to echolocate allows you to detect corners, doorways, and other obstacles that you may not have been aware of.

Better safety. Similarly, echolocation may help people with blindness and vision loss improve their safety. Reports indicate that people who know how to echolocate can, for instance, more accurately avoid collisions with objects and be more precise when walking near traffic.

Increased confidence. According to a recent survey, blind people who have learned echolocation are more confident when navigating and interacting with the environment. This is particularly relevant for everyday tasks such as going shopping or taking out the trash.

Improved well-being. After learning how to echolocate, some people report feeling like they have gained a new sense. Naturally, this has a tremendous impact on well-being, as they report feeling capable of overcoming most challenges after learning how to echolocate.

Higher salaries. One of the most surprising benefits of echolocation is that it can lead to higher wages. This is probably tied to the increased capabilities of people who echolocate, who may be better suited for jobs that require a lot of interaction with the environment.

How Can I Learn Echolocation?

If you want to learn how to echolocate, you should consider hiring an expert teacher. Echolocation isn’t a very easy skill to pick up, so having the guidance of a trained professional can go a long way in avoiding frustration and stress. But it’s also possible to learn how to echolocate on your own — here’s how to do it:

Understand the basics of echolocation. Learning how to echolocate will be a lot easier if you understand how it works and the physics behind it. Luckily, a vast amount of information online is available for everyone for free.

Ensure you have the right equipment and environments. While not much is needed to learn how to echolocate, the process will be much easier if you have a few elements in mind. Most importantly, you’ll need a quiet room; a movable sound source (such as a vacuum cleaner); and objects that vary in size, texture, and shape.

Train the basic hearing skills. Before learning echolocation, it’s essential to train your basic hearing skills. For example, while on the street, try to locate the direction of the traffic only through its sound. Another similar exercise is to place a sound source in the center of a room, walk around it, and try to determine its direction.

Pick an echolocation sound. Another crucial step you need to take before starting the echolocation exercises is to pick the sound you’ll use for echolocating. Cane taps, mouth clicks, and finger snaps are all excellent choices — ideally, it should be a sound you can easily make in any situation.

Perform some basic echolocation training. Initially, you should try to perform some basic echolocation exercises. For example, stand a few meters away from a wall and start walking toward it. Try to stop before touching the wall only by using the sounds you’re making.

Increase the difficulty of the exercises and practice. After grasping the basics of echolocation, try to increase the difficulty of the exercises. For example, add more obstacles or practice exercises in rooms with different acoustic properties. The most important thing is to keep practicing — by performing the exercises frequently and consistently, you’ll learn echolocation in no time.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
Frontiers in Physiology: “Echolocation may have real-life advantages for blind people: an analysis of survey data.”
Physiology News Magazine: “Echolocation in people.”
Plos One: “Human click-based echolocation: Effects of blindness and age, and real-life implications in a 10-week training program.”
Research  Outreach: “Reading between the clicks: A new approach to echolocation.”
The Bat Conservation Trust: “Flight, food and echolocation.”
Vision Rehabilitation International: “An Echolocation Training Package.”

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