June 23, 2022 — A new study on teaching humans navigation skills could bring you a little closer to Batman.
The process is called echolocation. Used by bats to navigate in the dark, it is the process of locating an object using echoing sound waves. Dolphins and whales also use it to navigate the water. A new study from Durham University demonstrates how humans can also develop this “sixth sense” in around 10 weeks by sending the right code of verbal clicks and clicks.
In a 2021 study, researchers challenged sighted and visually impaired people to walk through a series of mazes and describe objects using echolocation techniques that involved making verbal clicks.
They learned to “see” their surroundings by tapping into the visual parts of the brain, the researchers said. At the end of the 10-week study, the group was able to navigate hallways with fewer collisions and identify the size and shape of objects presented to them, regardless of age or visual status.
Blind people in their 80s were able to master the skills easily and bumped into walls as much as younger subjects; however, the younger ones were faster at completing the mazes.
Just-published university research built on these findings by testing how well these echolocation skills work and noting that they are most accurate when objects are at a 45-degree angle instead to be straight ahead. The researchers observed the accuracy with which expert echolocators detected a head-level disc 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 the echolocation processes of humans and bats are more similar than previously thought. Humans and bats are better at interpreting echoes when their ears receive sound at an angle. Considering how much Homo sapiens are bats, the similarity is remarkable, note the authors.
Clicks to improve lives
More than 80% of visually impaired people in the 2021 study reported a stronger sense of independence and well-being after learning tongue-clicking techniques. Many noted that it was like learning a new language that allowed them to go out on their own, explore unfamiliar environments, and relate better with friends and family.
Three months after the study, blind participants confirmed that they were still using echolocation techniques, and 10 out of 12 said the skill improved their independence and overall well-being.
“From our findings in adults, we learned that echolocation can provide significant benefits in terms of mobility, independence, and quality of life,” says Lore Thaler, PhD, lead author of the study. For the future, she hopes to study how young children might learn echolocation.
“It’s not that hard to teach,” Daniel Kish, president of World Access for the Blind, told CNN. “I believe the brain is already at least partly wired to do this. All that needs to happen is that the hardware needs to be woken up.