Scientists Say Humans Can Learn To Echolocate In A Very Short Amount Of Time

Well here's another new skill we're all supposed to learn.

By Douglas Helm | Published


Everyone wants super powers, but short of a radioactive spider bite, they’re not so easy to come by. However, there is a semi-super power that science is saying nearly any human can learn — echolocation. And the ability to echolocate is much more than just a cool party trick, as it can actually help blind individuals navigate the world more easily.

A recent study tested the human ability to learn to echolocate over the course of twenty 2 to 3-hour-long training sessions. The participants included 12 blind individuals and 14 sighted individuals. In the study, participants were taught to navigate obstacles using click-based echolocation, or by making clicking noises with their mouths. This clicking would help them navigate obstacles and also identify the relative size of the objects the sounds were bouncing off. Other methods to make sounds useful for echolocation include cane tapping or finger-snapping. Throughout the study, the participants navigated various mazes, with the final two sessions putting them through a virtual maze they hadn’t experienced before. The results saw them having fewer collisions than at the start of the study.

Interestingly, the newly trained echolocators in the study performed similarly to seven trained echolocators who have been using the skill for many years. What’s even more interesting is the fact that the ability to learn to echolocate doesn’t seem to be based on brain plasticity. As we get older, brain plasticity deteriorates. However, participants as old as 79 were able to pick up the skill through training. This would be extra useful, as vision typically deteriorates in old age too. Echolocating would be a good skill for elderly adults to utilize if need be.

While the results of this study are exciting, the ability to echolocate is not a new concept, however, it isn’t a concept that has been taught en masse. Studies like this may help to change that. Three months after the study the participants reported improved mobility. Another follow-up survey found that 10 out of 12 participants found that their independence had increased due to their new skills. This particular study was the first to see if the skill to echolocate would extend to blind people of various ages. It seems like, at least from this individual study, it is a skill that can be universally taught to our species.

While we may not have the ability to echolocate to the degree of bats, dolphins, and whales, any level of echolocation would be more useful than lacking the skill altogether. It’s also useful to teach sighted individuals, since vision may get worse when these individuals get older. Having the skill taught earlier in life could help make that transition easier.

As with any scientific finding, there is inevitably more research to be done on humans and their ability to echolocate. While the results of the most recent study are promising, it is a relatively small sample size. Hopefully, larger-scale studies will be conducted in the near future to see further explain the use of echolocation and improve the training methods to teach it.