One of the more interesting Marvel superheroes is Daredevil, a character who is blinded as a child, but who is able to sense the world around him because his other senses – most notably his hearing – improve to compensate for his disability.
As it turns out, this super power is more real than you might think. According to a new study from Durham University, there are humans who really can use echolocation, just like a bat, in order to see objects in their path based on sound waves that bounce off them.
While this is a power that, theoretically, many people can develop, at present, most of us don’t really have a reason to try. After all, those of us who can see will naturally rely on our eyes rather than attempting to learn echolocation. For some blind people, though, this skill is a fabulous help in everyday life, and it now has some scientific backing which suggests it works.
Participants of the study were self-professed echolocation masters; people who claim to have the ability to see by clicking and instinctively listening to the way sounds bounce around. To test that, these participants were placed within a sound-proof testing environment, with a 7 inch (17.5 centimeter) disc placed somewhere in the room. The participants were then asked to locate the disc using only their “super powers”.
Surprisingly this worked, albeit it depended on where the disc was placed within the room. It turns out that human echolocation is designed specifically for picking objects that are in a person’s way; when the disc was placed immediately in front of the participants, they were able to immediately locate it 100% of the time. This percentage dropped to 80% of the time if the object was slightly behind them, and 50% if it was directly behind their backs.
While this laboratory setting is very different to the outside world, it’s clear that something unusual is going on – just as bats bounce audio waves off their surroundings in order to scan around themselves, humans can produce clicks to orient themselves and spot potential hazards. Unlike bats, we’re not able to spin our ears around to take in a wide angle of sounds, and our hearing is nowhere near as that of other animals, but we can genuinely learn this skill.
Their research adds credibility to a claim often made by Daniel Kish, who presented a TED talk in 2015 where he discussed how he uses echolocation to navigate the world. Kish lost his sight at a young age, and in relearning to navigate the world, he instinctively began clicking as a way of helping himself get a sense of his surrounding area.
Kish is now so good at this technique that he can perform extraordinary feats, such as riding a bike, solely by relying on his echolocation.
It seems that for those who truly need it, this super power is real. Which is good to know, not least because this information may help to change people’s perceptions of the disabled. Kish is an advocate of finding ways to help blind people become more involved in society so that they’re seen not as needy recipients of charity, but equal contributors who are capable of helping just as much as they receive help.
With any luck, this new paper will help to champion that cause.
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