What's the straight dope on human echolocation?

Wiki link

Has it been scientifically tested? Can people actually use echolocation?

I’ve seen several blind people using clickers to help navigate around, so yes. It takes some practice tho, like any skill. Vut they also still used canes as well.

I don’t think is particularly controversial that this is possible. Its been studied:

Of course when blind people actually use these techniques to get around they might be using a combination of excellent spatial memory, echolocation, feeling textures with their feet, sensing reflected heat off walls and olfactory cues all at the same time.

Public radio’s This American Life did a story about a blind boy who taught himself to “see” by clicking and went on to teach other blind people. It’s pretty amazing.



(Don’t be confused or misled by the heading “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” The story is not about the movies.)

ETA: the subject of the TAL story is Daniel Kish, who has a section in the wiki entry. I should have checked first.

At a very elementary level, you can tell/sense if someone is standing nearby because they “block” ambient sound. I assume the sound-absorption properties of clothes have something to do with this.

Here’s one you wouldn’t expect.

I like to swim underwater quite a bit at the pool. I even do it on my back. I avoid hitting the bottom then by the change in sound as I near the bottom. There’s a background crackling sound caused by small air bubbles coming up with the water coming from the bottom. (You can actually see them.)

When I near the bottom this crackling gets a lot louder. It’s amazing how quickly it ramps up.

OTOH, acoustics in water are different than air. But I can easily see how an semi=experienced person will be able to tell they are getting within a few inches of a wall. The only question would be how far away could a well trained person detect a wall.

Ved Mehta who was New Yorker writer had a series of memoirs about growing up blind and going to school in Arkansas and then to Harvard. He mentions having this ability.

In one place, he mentions his ability to ride a bicycle through a forest without hitting any trees. It sounds amazing. I haven’t seen anything by him in years.

Here is just one person I have seen several videos of their people who have mastered this skill, one would think all people without traditional site would have access to the technique or classes.


Thats a very interesting interview but it was also interesting to see that when he was hiking alone in a forest with rough uneven terrain he was using two canes as well as echo-location clicks. Thats what I would expect, in a city with regular surfaces he might get buy with echo location only, but he needs the canes as well when out in a forest.

Well, probably inherent ability varies from person to person, and it would require adequate hearing in two ears - I suspect if you were deaf in one ear this wouldn’t work so well as determining sound direction and distance would be more difficult.

First I must apologize for a typo. It should have read other people not their.

I was also interested in the hiking segment and am somewhat curious about the multiple canes. If anyone has some info please share.

Excellent point, obviously had 't thought about hearing and how that may impact e ho location. I wonder if there are studies of bats and dolphins with hearing issues and how well they manage.

Here is the same chap at TED. Gives us a little more background.

again his Ted talk is fascinating but he uses a cane to keep his balance on stage so clearly Echolocation alone is not enough for him to be confident in that environment.

Has anyone here ever attended at a blind museum. I did it in Israel. I found it to be intense and very uncomfortable and I had a blind guide through the entire experience. My ears must have been filled with wax, I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face.

His Wiki entry shows nothing by him for over a decade. I saw him speak once at Princeton - amazing guy. He showed the movie he made about his uncle which ran on PBS.

Poorly, it is thought.

Googling for the words deaf dolphins we find a number of hits, a few of which actually seem to talk about deaf dolphins or whales.

Two examples:
More Than Half of Stranded Bottlenose Dolphins May Be Deaf.

‘A Deaf Whale Is a Dead Whale’: Sound Blasting for Oil Threatens Marine Life

So I have been thinking about the canes. Could be at TED, it was as simple an issue as liability. The cane is added insurance so to speak. Same with the forest, with filming and editing who knows.

Do you remember the title or year so I can look it up? Thanks in advance.