Built-in Superpowers: Echolocation Among the Humans

By Eric Wolff | July 2, 2009 12:59 pm

We all know the routine with super powers: a mutated gene, alien origin, or a magic object are required, and usually some cataclysmic family event for motivation. Matt Murdock, better known as Daredevil (and hopefully never again known as Ben Affleck), lost his sight to an accident with a truck carrying radioactive muck. The incident heightened the rest of his senses, which allowed him to use a small radar device and super hearing to allow him to “see.” But guess what? We don’t need a tiny radar, super senses, or even a death in the family to see with sound. We normals can do it already.

How, you may ask? Pretty much just like Daredevil (or bats, or dolphins) do, by bouncing sounds off the environment and listening for the echoes. Blind people have been doing something similar to this instinctively, usually describing how they can “feel” a nearby obstruction like a wall or door. What they’re actually doing is hearing the changing sound of their footsteps as they approach the obstacle. A recent study led by Spanish researcher Juan Antonio Martínez at the University of Alcalá de Henares tested a series of different sounds and techniques designed to teach people how to use echolocation for their own ends. The most effective sound we can make, they discovered, is clicking sound of the tongue pulling away from the roof of the mouth.

“The almost ideal sound is the ‘palate click, a click made by placing the tip of the tongue on the palate, just behind the teeth, and moving it quickly backwards, although it is often done downwards, which is wrong,” Martínez said in a press release.

Normals, bereft of super senses as we are, must resort to gumption and stick-to-itiveness to actually learn how to echolocate effectively. Martinez said students needed two hours a day for two weeks to learn to tell when an object is in front of them, and a few more weeks to be able to identify trees and pavement. A 2000 study found that listeners in motion are able to take advantage of the Doppler effect to locate objects more effectively.

Then again, when there’s a powerful need to learn how to echolocate well, it can be done with astonishing virtuosity. Ben Underwood, who died just last month, became blind at the age of two from cancer. He learned to rollerblade and play Foosball just through sounds and echolocation (the video is pretty amazing). He walked down the street making just the sort of clicks Martinez recommended, and he could tell parked cars from fire hydrants from plastic garbage cans.

So for those of us who didn’t manage to get bitten by a radioactive puppy or hail from a distant asteroid orbiting a purple sun, there’s hope yet! Seeing with your eyes closed is a pretty nifty superpower we can all have… with a lot of practice.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Comics

Comments (4)

  1. amphiox

    Interesting that the most effect sound is a click. Is there any relationship at all, in terms of the properties of the sound itself, with the clicks dolphins make?

  2. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Interesting question, Amphiox. I’d bet that the characteristic you’re looking for in the sound is very sharp edges — the sound should start and end very quickly, which would make it easier for your brain to analyze the echoes. I think clicks probably do have sharper leading and trailing edges than, say, humming or talking.

  3. I remember a number of people being really incredulous when hearing about Ben Underwood, insisting that it had to be a trick. I was a location audio engineer for a number of years and I had to assure people that it wasn’t a trick.

    Even without echolocation, I can tell you the approximate size of a room, what the walls and floor are made of, how high up in a building the room is and even locate some of the furniture. That’s just from years of listening and recording in all sorts of places.

    Whats actually kind of more interesting are the sounds that people generally can’t tell apart, the ambiance from highways and beaches are almost indistinguishable to the untrained ear, for instance. Certain kinds of white noise in low frequencies, like those in an elevator, don’t really interfere with the comprehension of human speech but a box fan can make a person virtually unintelligible.

    I’m going to stop now just to keep myself from going on and on. Suffice to say that super-hearing is just a matter of patience and paying attention.

  4. I remember a number of people being really incredulous when hearing about Ben Underwood, insisting that it had to be a trick. I was a location audio engineer for a number of years and I had to assure people that it wasn’t a trick.

    Even without echolocation, I can tell you the approximate size of a room, what the walls and floor are made of, how high up in a building the room is and even locate some of the furniture. That’s just from years of listening and recording in all sorts of places.

    Whats actually kind of more interesting are the sounds that people generally can’t tell apart, the ambiance from highways and beaches are almost indistinguishable to the untrained ear, for instance. Certain kinds of white noise in low frequencies, like those in an elevator, don’t really interfere with the comprehension of human speech but a box fan can make a person virtually unintelligible.

    I’m going to stop now just to keep myself from going on and on. Suffice to say that super-hearing is just a matter of patience and paying attention.
    P.S.: Forgot to mention great post!

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