Echolocation is one of those curiosities we all learn about in primary school, a quirk of nature that lets dolphins and bats ‘see’ in situations of reduced visibility. It’s such an interesting concept that a number of blind superheroes and fantasy warriors have sprung up in the realms of fiction, using similar abilities to navigate the world. But it’s not entirely fictional — there exist a handful of amazing people who actually use echolocation to ‘see’.
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Lucas Murray is a 14-year-old boy from Poole, England who was born blind — not that he lets that stop him. At the tender age of seven he made headlines as one of the first people in Britain to learn the art of echolocation. Just like a dolphin or a bat, Lucas’s skill works by producing a click with his tongue and the top of his mouth. The resulting echo allows him to identify not just where objects are and how close they are to him, but even what kind of material they were made of.
Lucas’s training was inspired after his parents, worried about their son’s future, watched a documentary about Ben Underwood, a blind American boy who had learned to ‘see’ using echolocation. They contacted Daniel Kish, a pioneer of the technique and the founder of the World Access For The Blind charity, who came out to teach Lucas how to echolocate over an intensive training period of just four days in 2007.
Kish is the pioneer of a technique called “FlashSonar”, which uses a loud, distinctive palatal click made by the tongue and roof of the mouth to gather information from any location or object. He trains other blind people in what he calls “Perceptual Mobility”, combining echolocation and the use of a Long Cane to navigate even mountain bike or hiking trails through the wilderness. “The sense of imagery is very rich for an experienced user,” he told the BBC in an interview. “One can get a sense of beauty or starkness or whatever – from sound as well as echo.”
While many people around the world have been trained in this technique, Kish has said “Lucas’ mobility is among the best in the U.K. for his age” of the young man dubbed ‘Bat Boy’ by some UK newspapers. For his part, Lucas has spoken on how echolocation has helped him get involved in a number of activities usually off limits to the sight-impaired, such as rock climbing and basketball: “I can use my click to find out where the hoop is myself and throw the ball through.”
Of course, blind people using sound to navigate is nothing new. All blind people use sounds in some way or another to keep themselves aware of the world around them. Many may use ‘passive’ echolocation without even categorising it as such, using the ambient sounds around them to gain a picture of their surroundings. “Active” echolocation like Kish and Lucas use are much more rare, however, despite how useful it can be. The main difference between the two is that active echolocation is more targeted — meaning its adherence can gather information from a specific object or location with their clicks, instead of relying on the sound around them.
A recent study showed “structural, functional and anatomical” differences in the brains of blind people, adapting to the loss of one sense by heightening others in a very real way. Training oneself in echolocation pushes our brains’ natural neuroplasticity even further, as one 2011 study found out when comparing the brains of echolocating blind people to those who weren’t trained in the technique.
This study not only found that parts of the brain were activated in echolocating subjects that stayed dormant in non-echolocating subjects, but also that the parts of the brain used were generally associated with vision rather than hearing — meaning Lucas truly does ‘see’ with his ears, just like a bat.