Echolocation: It's Using Your Ears to Help You "See"

by Maureen A. Duffy

Rowan is an 18-month-old German Spitz dog. Rowan was also born without eyes, a condition known as anophthalmia.

Owner Sam Orchard, a dog breeder in the United Kingdom, was "stunned" when she realized that Rowan was using echolocation to navigate his environment – by barking and then listening to the echoes created by his bark to determine his location in relation to his surroundings.

According to Ms. Orchard, Rowan "barks to judge the lay of the land and ... when I call his name he knows exactly where I am and comes running." You can read more about Rowan at the Small World News Service.

It’s not Rowan I’m primarily interested in however; rather, it is human echolocation that fascinates me. According to Wikipedia:

Human echolocation is the ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects. This ability is used by some blind people to navigate within their environments. They actively create sounds by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their feet, or making clicking noises with their mouths.

Human echolocation is similar in principle to active sonar and to the animal echolocation employed by some animals, including bats and dolphins. (Editor's note: and Rowan)

By interpreting the sound waves reflected by nearby objects, a person trained to navigate by echolocation can accurately identify the location and sometimes size of nearby objects and not only use this information to steer around obstacles and travel from place to place, but also detect small movements relative to objects.

On the VisionAWARE web site, we also discuss echolocation as a component of learning to maximize hearing, touch, smell, and taste when learning to cope with vision loss:

If you concentrate on what you are hearing, and where sounds are coming from, you will be able to gain more information about your surroundings and begin to feel safer and more comfortable.

For example, try this exercise to help you locate an open doorway in your home:

  • Walk slowly down any hallway in your home.
  • As you walk, you will sense a "closed-in" feeling until you reach an open doorway.
  • At that point, you will probably experience a sense of "openness" on your left or right side, depending on which side has the open doorway.
Also, rooms that are varying sizes will sound different from one another. A bathroom, for example, is usually small and contains hard surfaces, such as tiles and porcelain that can cause sounds to bounce and "echo." A living room is larger, with rugs and soft furniture that can absorb and muffle sounds.

As you approach your entry door, especially if it is located in a foyer, you may experience a "closed in" feeling or sensation. This occurs because sounds are reflected from three very close walls. In a living room or larger space, you'll notice that sounds suddenly "fall away," since they take longer to reflect (or bounce) from wall to wall. The area around you will now feel more spacious and open.

Echolocation is a terrific skill to learn and can help supplement most indoor and outdoor orientation and mobility skills.

Here's an interesting fact: Echolocation used to be called "facial vision" because it was believed that blind people were somehow able to "see" and perceive objects in their environments by absorbing information through a special "mystical" facial sense. Now, of course, we know that such perception is a function of hearing and, by extension, echolocation.

In 2007, I wrote about echolocation user Ben Underwood after reading about him in a People magazine profile. Ben was completely blind after retinal cancer claimed both of his eyes at age three.

When he was five years old, Ben discovered echolocation and learned to perceive and locate objects by making a steady stream of sounds with his tongue, then listening for echoes as they bounced off the surfaces around him. He used this skill to participate in running, rollerblading, skateboarding, basketball, and foosball.

I was saddened when I learned that Ben died on January 19, 2009 at age 16, from the same cancer that claimed his vision.

To learn more about echolocation, I recommend contacting Daniel Kish, the founder and president of World Access for the Blind, an organization that provides instruction in FlashSonar (echolocation), mobility, and life skills to blind youth and adults.

Dan, who also lost his vision from retinal cancer when he was 13 months old, has developed a wide array of echolocation techniques and leads energetic, no-holds-barred hiking, mountain biking, and wilderness expeditions.

I was honored to attend a three-day seminar on echolocation that Dan presented several years ago about the possibilities (and freedom!) of navigating the world without sight, using only echolocation. The experience changed me forever, and I have Dan to thank for opening my mind ... and for humbling me.

Rowan the German Spitz is on to something, isn't he? picture of Maureen DuffyBy: Maureen A. Duffy, M.S., CVRT, Editorial Director of AWARE. Maureen is an editor, writer, and adjunct faculty member who contributes numerous books, book chapters, and articles in a variety of professional and academic publications on blindness, vision loss, and aging.

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