Humans Are Being Taught to Echolocate Like Dolphins - and It's Surprisingly Easy

Echolocation is a well-known, sonar-based form of navigation used by bats, dolphins, and whales – but are humans able to learn this complex language as well? Apparently so, and according to this Science Alert article, it’s surprisingly easy.

Echolocation works by sending out sound waves and interpreting their reverberations in order to figure out where objects exist in space. For example, bats use this form of communication in order to find their way around in the dark, and also to find food. Nocturnal by nature, bats do all of their work at night, and their eyes are not their strongest feature. You’ve probably heard the expression, ‘blind as a bat’? Well, they’re not exactly blind, but their sharpest sense is hearing, and so they send out ultra-sonic sound waves – either from their nose or mouth, to navigate the world around them. The echo reverberates off of solid objects and returns to their sensitive ears. From this echo, bats can determine all kinds of information about the objects around them, including their size, shape, and location. Using echolocation, bats can detect the tiniest objects, including mosquitoes, which is one of their main forms of food. Although humans cannot hear the high-frequency sound waves that bats emit, insects can. Moths, for example, will change their flight patterns if they hear a bat’s sonar. Bats are not the only creatures that use echolocation. Whales and dolphins also do, as do shrews and some species of birds.

We often use military sonar to describe the ways in which bat echolocation works, but did you know that bats are the ones who taught humans how to use sonar? Military scientists studied bats in order to replicate their use of sound waves to locate objects underwater – sonar – as well as locating planes in the open air by using electromagnetic waves – radar. Humans often revile bats because they’re mysterious mammals that only come out at night, but we actually owe them a lot when it comes to echolocation. They are intelligent creatures, and they’ve taught us a great deal. And now humans are starting to learn their language of echolocation. Echolocation can be especially helpful to those who cannot see, but it’s proving to be useful for those who can as well. Scientists recently taught a group of people – some of whom were sighted, and others who were blind – to navigate using echolocation in virtual dark spaces. The people were instructed to describe various rooms and find their way around using a series of tongue clicks that reverberated off the walls. The fact that sighted people were able to navigate just as well as blind people came as a surprise to the scientists. In the past, it was assumed blind people could echolocate more skilfully than sighted ones because their sense of hearing had become more keenly developed. The fact that sighted people can echolocate is a very positive discovery in the realm of sonic navigation. Another fascinating discovery happened when participants were hooked up to an MRI scanner for the echolocation experiments. For the sighted people, their motor cortex was activated. This is the part of the human brain that detects movement. This leads scientists to believe the motor cortex is somehow involved in the processing of sensory data. For the blind participants, however, it was the visual cortex that was activated – this is the part of the brain that interprets data from sight. This implies they were visualizing the room as the echoes returned to them.

This excellent, informative article on humans’ ability to learn echolocation comes from the Science Alert website, where you can find the latest, cutting-edge science news – on topics like technology, health, environment, space, physics, and nature.*

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