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Blind people can learn
to navigate like bats
by 'SEEING' objects
using clicks and echoes
By DAILY MAIL REPORTER
Last updated at 3:02 PM on 26th May 2011
Blind people can learn to navigate like bats by 'seeing' objects from sounds reflected off them, a study has shown.
They make clicking noises with their mouths and listen to the returning echoes to make sense of their environment.
A few are so adept at the skill that they use it to go mountain biking, play ball games, or explore unknown places.
Blind leading the blind: Daniel Kish is now teaching others with sight-loss how to use echolocation.
Daniel Kish, 43, was the best performer during tests at the University of Ontario. He had his eyes removed at 13 months of age due to retinoblastoma, a rare blinding cancer.
He said he naturally used echolocation as a child to help him move around.
'People used to call it my "radar,” he says. I’ve been echolocating for as long as I can remember.'
Surprisingly, the echoes are processed using the visual part of the brain - not the auditory region that receives sound signals from the ears, scientists have discovered.
The university team carried out functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to study the brain activity of Mr Kish and Brian Bushway, 27, who had also been left completely blind in childhood.
On the move: Daniel Kish said he started clicking to get his bearings from a very young age. He now teaches other blind people to use echolocation
Senior scientist Dr Mel Goodale, from the University of Western Ontario, said: 'It is clear that echolocation enables blind people to do things that are otherwise thought to be impossible without vision, and in this way it can provide blind and vision-impaired people with a high degree of independence in their daily lives.'
It may be possible for anyone to learn to echolocate like a bat, according to the researchers.
Bats emit a high-pitched sound while flying at night. The sound waves bounce off an object and send an echo back. Just as light waves provide information to our eyes for our brain to interpret, similarly the echo sound waves have impressions from the objects they bounce off of.
The sounds illuminate the environment acoustically, rather than optically.
'You can hear those imprints,' Mr Kish told Western News.
'You can hear the differences in the sound waves as they come back. So basically what you can do is extract information now imbedded in those sound waves. That information corresponds to the surfaces from which the sound waves bounce.'
He added that hearing is a 360-degree sense, whereas vision is limited to 180 degrees and that auditory information is processed more quickly than visual data.
The findings from the study were published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.