While bats make high-pitched sounds and listen for the echo that comes back, humans can do the same by tapping their tongues. Psychologists from Durham University taught study participants this technique in twenty two to three hour training sessions. During the sessions, participants trained to distinguish between large and small objects, made their way through a maze and determine whether or not a rectangular surface was standing. They also roamed “for free” for half an hour.
Both blind and sighted people significantly improved echolocation thereafter. The researchers concluded that this means the method can also be applied to people whose vision gradually deteriorates. Furthermore, age does not appear to be a limiting factor.
More mobile, independent and happy
A questionnaire was provided to the blind after three months of the study. This showed that they became more mobile on average. In 83% of cases, they were also more independent and happier. “I can’t think of any study with blind participants that has gotten such an enthusiastic response,” said Laure Thaler, the psychologist who led the British study.
Richard van Wiesel, professor of neuroscience at Radboud University in Nijmegen, has also conducted research on how blind people navigate, describing the research as “interesting.” “It is often thought that people who have been blind all their lives focus more on sound, but now it turns out that people who see well can learn echolocation just as easily,” he says.
Van Wiesel himself researched how spoken or tactile information could help blind people on their way. He believes that “in the end, no single method is best”. “The downside of tongue clicking is that it can look a little weird. But the advantage is that you can always use your tongue. With digital aids, something can always break or the battery will run out.
In the Netherlands, blind and visually impaired people are already learning to use echolocation in practice. Carine Lichtenberg offers these courses at the Bartiméus Experience Foundation. “I see it can have a positive impact on customer mobility,” she says. Recently there was a woman who stopped going out at night. Now do it again, using echolocation at tricky points in its path.
Lichtenberg also understands that some people prefer not to go out into the street by flicking their tongue. “One of the young men I supervised is now checking his keys at points that are difficult for him to direct. This works the same way.
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