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Meet the Real Life “Bat” Man
Daniel Kish doesn’t wear a cape, but he does have a kind of super power. Blind from birth, this Californian navigates by “active echolocation” – a process where he clicks his tongue and navigates the world by the sound waves reflected back.
Kish makes little taps with his tongue on the roof of his mouth two or three times a second, and these small sounds help him “see” the world around him. He is so incredibly advanced at the technique that he can hike and even mountain bike without any form of assistance.
The “Bat” Man moniker comes from the fact that his tongue clicking technique operates in the same way that bats do via sonar. The bats send out high-pitched sounds that are reflected back to the bat when the sound waves hit a surface in front of them. It’s what allows them to fly at night without hitting anything.
Most blind people have a sense of echolocation as they navigate the world around them. Perhaps it’s with a tap of their cane, a snap of their fingers, the sound of their footsteps or simply a heightened sense of recognizing sounds that are coming their way, but Kish’s sense of echolocation is so finely honed that he can, in many ways, determine what things are through his clicks.
The echoes he hears from his clicks help him ascertain the distance of objects, their size and often, if conditions are right, what the object is like through texture or density of an object.
Kish explained it to the BBC:
“For example, a wooden fence is likely to have thicker structures than a metal fence and when the area is very quiet, wood tends to reflect a warmer, duller sound than metal.”
Amazingly, Kish reports that in addition to just navigating the world, his active echolocation gives him a sense of the aesthetics of the world. He reports being able to absorb a sense of beauty or starkness and other adjectives that describe our world all from his clicks and echoes.
Could Echolocation Be a Form of Seeing?
While for Daniel Kish, his experience with such finely honed echolocation makes it sound like he can see. But, is that the reality? Is echolocation a form of seeing?
A team of scientists from Canada wondered the exact same thing and in 2011 they scanned the brains of two blind echolocators, and two sighted people who could not echolocate.
When being scanned, the participants listened to two sets of sound recordings. One set of sounds had the natural echoes and the other had them removed.
The scans showed something very interesting. For the echolocators, there was activity in the calcarine cortex, which is the part of the brain associated with vision in sighted people. And the readings showed a stronger response in that region in the scans done taken with the recording with the echoes.
The scientists behind the study concluded that they don’t know the extent to which these echolocaters are “seeing” but they absolutely are using the part of the brain that sighted people use to see.
What Does the Future Hold?
The scientific evidence showing that echolocators like Kish may have their own form of seeing is compelling. So is the technique something that should be taught to the blind, much like they would learn braille?
It seems the jury is out. Daniel Kish is now devoting his life to teaching others the technique – which he has now dubbed “Flash Sonar,” but it’s not clear whether everyone can or would want to adopt the technique.
In his work, Kish has found some resistance to the technique – especially in older people – perhaps because the clicking calls attention to themselves. He observes that echolocation seems to be accepted as a service that can be taught, but isn’t required in schools or societies for the blind.
Kish continues to move on, teaching Flash Sonar to those who are receptive. He’s now focused on teaching blind children to use the technique along with their canes, building their confidence and independence. There have been cases where children have learned enough echolocation to play basketball and rock climb.
There’s even blind soccer where boards surround the field so players can hear the reflected sounds and get into some serious action.
It’s all a step in the right direction. One day in the future it may be that all blind people have developed the advanced echolocation techniques – the Flash Sonar that has freed Daniel Kish to mountain bike and interact with the world around him.
As a real life “bat” man, he’s our kind of hero.
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