Diagnosed with retinal cancer at the age of two, American Ben Underwood had his eyes removed at the age of three. He discovered echolocation at the age of five. He was able to detect the location of objects by making frequent clicking noises with his tongue. This case was explained in 20/20: medical mysteries. He used it to accomplish such feats as running, playing basketball, riding a bicycle, rollerblading, playing football, and skateboarding. Underwood’s child eye doctor claimed that Underwood was one of the most proficient human echolocators. Underwood died on January 19, 2009 at the age of 16, from the same cancer that took his vision
Human echolocation is an ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects. By actively creating sounds – for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot or making clicking noises with their mouths – people trained to orientate with echolocation can interpret the sound waves reflected by nearby objects, accurately identifying their location and size. This ability is used by some blind people for acoustic wayfinding, or navigating within their environment using auditory rather than visual cues. It is similar in principle to active sonar and to the animal echolocation employed by some animals, including bats, dolphins and toothed whales.
Vision and hearing are closely related in that they can process reflected waves of energy. Vision processes light waves as they travel from their source, bounce off surfaces throughout the environment and enter the eyes. Similarly, the auditory system processes sound waves as they travel from their source, bounce off surfaces and enter the ears. Both systems can extract a great deal of information about the environment by interpreting the complex patterns of reflected energy that they receive. In the case of sound, these waves of reflected energy are called “echoes“.
Echoes and other sounds can convey spatial information that is comparable in many respects to that conveyed by light.With echoes, a blind traveler can perceive very complex, detailed, and specific information from distances far beyond the reach of the longest cane or arm. Echoes make information available about the nature and arrangement of objects and environmental features such as overhangs, walls, doorways and recesses, poles, ascending curbs and steps, planter boxes, pedestrians, fire hydrants, parked or moving vehicles, trees and other foliage, and much more. Echoes can give detailed information about location (where objects are), dimension (how big they are and their general shape), and density (how solid they are). Location is generally broken down into distance from the observer and direction (left/right, front/back, high/low). Dimension refers to the object’s height (tall or short) and breadth (wide or narrow).
By understanding the interrelationships of these qualities, much can be perceived about the nature of an object or multiple objects. For example, an object that is tall and narrow may be recognized quickly as a pole. An object that is tall and narrow near the bottom while broad near the top would be a tree. Something that is tall and very broad registers as a wall or building. Something that is broad and tall in the middle, while being shorter at either end may be identified as a parked car. An object that is low and broad may be a planter, retaining wall, or curb. And finally, something that starts out close and very low but recedes into the distance as it gets higher is a set of steps. Density refers to the solidity of the object (solid/sparse, hard/soft). Awareness of density adds richness and complexity to one’s available information. For instance, an object that is low and solid may be recognized as a table, while something low and sparse sounds like a bush; but an object that is tall and broad and very sparse is probably a fence.
Echolocation has been further developed by Daniel Kish, who works with the blind, leading blind teenagers hiking and mountain-biking through the wilderness and teaching them how to navigate new locations safely, with a technique that he calls “FlashSonar”, through the non-profit organization World Access for the Blind.
- Human echolocation activates visual parts of the brain (thehandiestone.typepad.com)
- Humans Can Learn to Echolocate (livescience.com)
- Humans Can Learn to Use Echolocation to “See,” Researchers Claim (news.softpedia.com)
- How Human Echolocation Allows People to See Without Using Their Eyes (blogs.smithsonianmag.com)
- Using Your Tongue To “See” (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- Texas A&M fans band together, create unforgettable day for an Aggie fighting cancer (sportingnews.com)