3 June 2011
Psychologists have for the first time investigated the brain processes underlying the ability of some blind people to locate objects by producing mouth clicks and listening for the returning echoes, just like bats or dolphins.
In an experiment with two blind echolocators, who use their talent in daily life to enable them to play basketball and go mountain biking, researchers in Canada compared their brain activity to that of sighted people (controls) listening to the same clicks.
Surprisingly, MRI scans showed the echolocators' processing of click echoes was "uncannily similar to vision", the researchers reported (PLoS ONE 2011; online 25 May).
The processing occurred in brain regions devoted to vision rather than hearing, whereas the controls could not perceive objects with clicks and their brains showed no similar activity.
"It is clear that echolocation enables blind people to do things that are otherwise thought to be impossible without vision," the authors said.
"This has broad practical implications in that echolocation is a trainable skill that can potentially offer ... liberating opportunities for blind and vision-impaired people."
Last Reviewed: 03 June 2011