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June 23, 2022 – A new study on teaching navigation skills to humans might get you a little closer to being Batman.
The process is called echolocation. Used by bats to get around in the dark, it is the process of locating an object using echoed sound waves. Dolphins and whales also use it to navigate through water. A new Durham University study demonstrates how humans, too, can develop this “sixth sense” in about 10 weeks by sending out the right code of verbal clicks and snaps.
In a 2021 study, researchers challenged both sighted and sight-challenged people to get through a series of mazes and describe objects using echolocation techniques that involved making verbal clicking noises.
They learned to “see” their surroundings by tapping into visual parts of the brain, the researchers said. By the end of the 10-week study, the group was able to cruise through the corridors with fewer collisions and identify the size and shape of objects presented to them, regardless of their age or sight status.
Blind people who were nearly 80 years old were able to master the skills easily and bumped into walls the same amount as younger subjects; though, the younger ones were speedier at completing the mazes.
Just-published research from the university built on these findings by testing how well those echolocation skills worked and noting that they are most precise when objects are at a 45-degree angle instead of straight ahead. The researchers observed how accurately expert echolocators detected a head-level disk held at different angles. In the future, they hope to use their observations to improve artificial radar and sonar systems.
The new study suggests that human and bat echolocation processes are more similar than previously thought. Both humans and bats are more skilled at interpreting echoes when their ears receive sound at an angle. Considering how different Homo sapiens are from chiropterans, the similarity is remarkable, the authors noted.
Clicks to Improve Lives
More than 80% of the sight-challenged people in the 2021 study reported stronger feelings of independence and well-being after learning the tongue clicking techniques. Many noted that it was like learning a new language that enabled them to walk outside by themselves, explore unfamiliar environments, and enjoy better relationships with their friends and family.
Three months after the study, blind participants confirmed that they were still using echolocation techniques, and 10 out of 12 of them said the skill improved their independence and overall well-being.
“From our discoveries in adults, we have learned echolocation can provide significant advantages in mobility, independence, and quality of life,” Lore Thaler, PhD, the study’s lead author, says. Looking forward, she hopes to study how young children might learn echolocation.
“It isn’t that difficult to teach,” Daniel Kish, president of World Access for the Blind, told CNN. “I believe that the brain is already at least partly wired to do this. All that needs to happen is the hardware needs to be awakened.”