How to Use Your Inner Bat

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06/26/13
In the Magazine
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NO, THIS isn’t yet another vampire tale. This is science. The Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at Britain’s University of Southampton has been studying the extent to which the blind (or in some cases blindfolded) can use echoes to orient themselves or even to identify objects. Bats, of course, are famous for the way they employ echolocation to navigate through treetops and caves as they hunt down insects. Humans can’t come close to that sort of precision, but they can do more than you might think. An American organization called World Access for the Blind trains people to use tongue clicks to navigate. Its president, Daniel Kish, is so skilled he can ride a bicycle in traffic. The aim of the Southampton researchers is to find ways to improve that ability among less-gifted people. They have discovered, for instance, longer sounds are better at a distance, while shorter ones help to ping objects more precisely as they grow closer. Hugh Huddy of the British group Vision2020 UK tells the BBC he hopes research will continue to focus not on bats but on “a better understanding of the amazing-yet-ordinary hearing abilities within everyone.”

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