In short, the answer is yes, and there are individuals who can prove it. Daniel Kish, now an adult, claims that his blindness from the age of thirteen months doesn’t hinder his active life. He can go camping, swimming, and hiking with no problem, all thanks to his ability to echolocate. And Thomas Trajo, who went blind at the age of 9, is a disability advocate who teaches others how to use echolocation, which helped his own journey a lot. Others still, can bike, run and navigate the world without the need of a cane or guide dog.
Yet even with all these examples, echolocation seems pretty unbelievable for those with no vision problems. Even then, usually we tie ‘echolocation’ to bats and whales. But if you think for a second, there are all sorts of people/actions who use echolocation in practice. Contractors finding studs in the walls, and doctors that tap on their patients’ chests are using echolocation!
A Mis-understood History:
When mentions of echolocation in people first arrived, researchers came up with tons of theories as to how it worked. Some thought that patients detected changes in air pressure on the eardrums or face, called “facial vision”. While others believed it could be electrical, or something to do with ambient magnetism. Some of the more inventive theories even described a ‘sixth-sense’, putting the blame on the intuition and subconscious of the blind.
With the 1900s just around the corner, Theodor Heller, a German scientist and head of an institute for the blind, finally conducted a study on the phenomenon. The subjects, two blind and two sighted, were blindfolded and asked to walk down a hallway with a large block in the way. As expected, the blind subjects did considerably better, or at least bumped into the walls way less. The next step of the experiment was to exchange the hard wooden floor for socks and carpet. When the blind subjects did far worse on the carpet, it led them to believe that sound detection, not pressure or ‘intuition’, was what echolocation (in humans) relied on.
How About the Present?
Now, over a century later, scientists have done brain scans on people who echolocate that reveal its link to sight. In patients, when ‘echolocating’, the visual parts of the brain light-up, hinting at the fact that it’s not just a way of hearing or ‘sixth-sense’, but actually a replacement for sight itself.
How is it Done?
Evidence from both anecdotal and clinical trials found that patients use sounds, like clicking their tongues, to echolocate. However, scientists have postulated that one of the reasons we don’t see many ‘master echolocators’ is because these noises are discouraged from a young age. Parents often don’t want toddlers hissing, singing, or clapping their hands all the time; all of which are ways to echolocate. So, when parents don’t know to be aware of these behaviors, it can be difficult for a child to develop the ability at all.
It’s amazing how we can overcome a deficit by using something so completely different, yet with the same functions. And, if you know someone who’s blind, especially a kid, it might not be just noise they’re making, but the way they see the world!