hearing is seeing
August 21, 2006 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Echolocation : bats use it. So do whales and dolphins. And humans? The 14-year-old profiled here and here is using it. Learn more about how blind people are employing perception and processing of the auditory environment: where words like flash and tags have an altogether different meaning.
posted by flapjax at midnite (28 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can't believe his mom's name is actually Aquanetta.
posted by parrot_person at 8:34 AM on August 21, 2006


I have to admit to being somewhat skeptical. Sure, he can probably pick up a certain amount from the acoustics of a room, but much of what he's doing is probably actually hearing sounds something really is making (rather than an echo) and by knowing his environment pretty well already. Although he may not be aware how he's knowing where something is and may genuinely believe his clicking away is what's doing it.

It'd be dead easy to actually set up a genuine test under much more controlled circumstances that would actually show this is echo location rather than just ordinary hearing combined with a knowledge of where he is.

Take this line from one of the links:
"I can hear that wall behind you over there. I can hear right there — the radio, and the fan,"
That's not echo location.
posted by edd at 8:40 AM on August 21, 2006


edd:
'Ben's clicks tell him what's ahead: the echoes they produce can be soft (indicating metals), dense (wood) or sharp (glass). Judging by how loud or faint they are, Ben has learned to gauge distances. '
---
'Haase took walks with Ben to help him practice locating objects. "I said, 'Okay, my car is the third car parked down the street. Tell me when we get there,' " she says. "As we pass the first vehicle, he says, 'There's the first car. Actually, a truck.' And it was a pickup. He could tell the difference."'

he uses echolocation. These articles made me a little teary eyed. Its amazing to see the adaptability of the human brain when psychological barriers are broken down.

edd, i don't understand such a negative reaction; but apparently acerbic cynicism is the way of things today on mefi.
posted by Merik at 8:50 AM on August 21, 2006


I wouldn't consider my response particularly negative. He's clearly picking up more than you'd expect him to, and is doing so skillfully. But people are frankly very good at deceiving themselves about how they're doing things, and I think if someone is going to be lauded for having an unusual and exceptional skill we should make sure we know just what that skill is, and then be impressed by that rather than something else.

If the claim was that this guy was psychic we'd be rushing to test him. Just because he's doing something in a way that might just be possible doesn't actually mean that he is doing it that way, and I think it's foolish to assume he is. Not that what he is doing isn't impressive.
posted by edd at 8:58 AM on August 21, 2006


more about dan kish and his research on echolocation:
world access for the blind (waftb.org)

2004 interview with Dan Kish

Also a peer reviewed study from waftb.org:
This scholarly monograph presents an exhaustive review of the literature on human echolocation. These findings are discussed with relevance to the design of a systematic echolocation training program. The positive impact of echolocation on blind travel is thoroughly documented. "SONIC ECHOLOCATION: A Modern Review of the Literature" - RTF Text Version
posted by Merik at 8:59 AM on August 21, 2006


I think it is foolish to dismiss something without investigating its veracity. Of course that would require more effort than clicking the post button.
posted by Merik at 9:03 AM on August 21, 2006


list of studies and papers about human echolocation (waftb.org)
posted by Merik at 9:04 AM on August 21, 2006


"I think it is foolish to dismiss something without investigating its veracity. Of course that would require more effort than clicking the post button"

Uh, yeah Merik, but had you clicked on one of the last link in my original post you'd have seen it was to World Access for the Blind.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2006


Yeah, you'll see towards the end of the things mentioned in that review precisely the sort of test I was suggesting. It failed at p=0.067. I simply find it more plausible to assume that you can tell things by actually listening for environmental sounds and using other cues than performing the incredibly difficult feat of echo location.

It's also blown out of proportion by journalists. Take the AOL link - seen the video of him 'using echo location to connect with dolphins?' He's in a pool, surrounded by environmental sounds and you can probably hear the dolphin coming without having to click at it. And note that on the way back he's actually led up a path by someone. Not one clear instance of echo location in it.

One of the picture captions even claims he plays video games by echo location, when he's clearly playing them by sound effects - an impressive feat in itself but not what the article leads you to believe. Unless you think he can echo locate the image on a TV screen.
posted by edd at 9:13 AM on August 21, 2006


Uh, yeah Merik, but had you clicked on one of the last link in my original post you'd have seen it was to World Access for the Blind.

yeah i was half way through the second link when i started googling echolocation in humans; so i found waftb.org before i got through all your links. whats your point? I was just trying to answer Edd, whose comments seemed to imply that he hadnt read more than one page of one link.
posted by Merik at 9:14 AM on August 21, 2006


That first article doesn't do much for the credibility of his mad echolocation skills by gushing over things that are sort of general:

"In school, Ben recognizes his classmates by their voices. With the help of Braille books and a talking laptop computer, Ben attends the same classes as sighted students."

Also, the sight of him on that bike makes me cringe. If he's in an accident, isn't he sort of automatically liable no matter what, echolocation or no?
posted by hermitosis at 9:15 AM on August 21, 2006


For those that are skeptical, there were a number of informative studies conducted in the 50's and 60's concerning what may really be happening in this process. A good summary of that work can be found here.
posted by Gif at 9:16 AM on August 21, 2006


This is why Daredevil is constabtky making little clicking noises.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:27 AM on August 21, 2006


Ved Mehta, a blind writer born in India, wrote about what I believe he called "blind vision" in some of his books -- he never walked with a cane, could tell where there were curbs and other obstacles, or whether the door he was heading for had a threshhold, etc.
posted by beagle at 9:46 AM on August 21, 2006


Astro Zombie, is that a typo or are you also using echolocation?
posted by joshuaconner at 10:37 AM on August 21, 2006


I kept thinking it sounded like the backstory of a superhero. Thanks, Astro Zombie^.

I also wonder whether he would have had this amazing ability had he not lost his sight. Is it only because his visual cortex isn't busy processing optic nerve signals that he can echolocate? Is it because he lost their eyes so young that this ability developed? Would he have latent or manifest echolocation abilities had he remained sighted?
posted by owhydididoit at 10:42 AM on August 21, 2006


theirhis
posted by owhydididoit at 10:42 AM on August 21, 2006


joshuaconner is in that corner there.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:18 AM on August 21, 2006


It's true!
posted by joshuaconner at 12:27 PM on August 21, 2006


well, theres a nifty demo one often does when they teach perception to undergrads... involves playing the sound of a nail being hit with a hammer in the middle of a room... you play the sound forwards and then backwards. when you play it backwards, you note that there are a number of very strong echos which you didnt hear when the tape was played forwards, the reason being that most humans perceptually supress conscious awareness of echos as part of how we process auditory input...

none of that means though, that we cant unlearn this or that the information cant be used at a subconscious level to build up percepts of the external world.

that said, the fact that most blind humans dont learn to echolocate on their own suggests that this is much more difficult than it is being made out to be, and it seems to me that bens extraordinary ability almost certainly would be due to the age at which he lost his sight, which is during a critical period for brain "wiring" when there is high neuronal plasticity.
posted by mano at 2:49 PM on August 21, 2006


also, two more things:

1) you should keep in mind that the word blind can mean many things.

most blind people people have some part(s) of their visual pathway(s) intact. the diagnosis is made based on a person's ability to respond to visual stimuli, and it is possible that many of these early reports of "blindsight" or other miracles are simply cases of people who can "see" a little bit.

2) the leading irreversible causes of blindness occur late in life, and thus after neuronal plasticity has been, as far as we know, drastically reduced. they involve degeneration of the eye/retina.

there are some new and experimental, but probably more promising types of research being done into actual "sight restoration" . In my opinion this holds greater promise of improved navigation/perception for _adults_ than training in echolocation.
posted by mano at 3:01 PM on August 21, 2006


MetaFilter: acerbic cynicism is the way of things
posted by nlindstrom at 7:48 PM on August 21, 2006


Actually, I can kind of do this. On the other hand, I'm sighted and don't have to rely on it. Either way, I can judge distances and where things are based on reflections of the sounds from my (alveolar) click, which I can produce to be really really loud, if necessary. I always wondered if someone might use it for more.

Awesome article!
posted by taursir at 8:08 PM on August 21, 2006


James Holman (1786-1857) used echolocation - he was one of the worlds most accomplished travelers - and was blind. Really fantastic recent biography about him A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler (2006).
posted by stbalbach at 8:30 AM on August 22, 2006


Note that brain damage and psychological conditions, or a combination of both, can cause a person to believe themselves to be blind when, in fact, their eyes work and signals from them are reaching the brain and being processed.

This is one of those fascinating Oliver Sacks kinds of disorders, and it can account for some "blind sight" situations. The person may be entirely unconscious of any ability to see, but their ability to "echolocate", or whatever, mysteriously goes away if they try to do it in the dark.

The blanket term for loss of vision without an apparent organic cause is "Functional Vision Loss", which is a lot less insulting than the old term, "hysterical blindness".

This clearly isn't the case with this kid, though, on account of the fact that he does not have eyes.
posted by dansdata at 9:42 AM on August 22, 2006


One of the picture captions even claims he plays video games by echo location, when he's clearly playing them by sound effects - an impressive feat in itself but not what the article leads you to believe. Unless you think he can echo locate the image on a TV screen.

edd: No, it doesn't say that. The article (not a caption) says:
He excels at PlayStation games by memorizing the sounds that characters and movements make.
I didn't see any implication that he echolocates what's happening on the TV screen. It just says he memorizes sounds. I've heard of other blind people who do the same thing, so that's not unheard of. Memorizing the sounds is not the same thing as echolocating, so I think you misread the article there.
posted by etoile at 10:43 AM on August 24, 2006


Actually etoile, it said that in the article. There is a caption exactly as I described for one of the photos.

'Ben Underwood is blind, but he uses echo-location to ride his bike, shoot hoops and play video games. (ABC News)'

It's bad journalism, as I was trying to say.
posted by edd at 2:03 AM on August 25, 2006


Ack, my mistake. And since many people get their news exclusively from captions because they don't read the full article, it's a significant error on the ABC newswonk's part.
posted by etoile at 9:04 AM on August 30, 2006


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