I was on a show Stan Lee’s Superhumans and one of my fellow Superhumans used a technique called Echolocation, that gentleman was named Juan Ruiz. Here is another story that I feel it inspiring to pass along. It’s an amazing feat, accomplished by an amazing young man, Ben Underwood. Ben is blind, but through observation by his mother and the tenacity of youth, Ben found a way to navigate in a sighted world, and sometimes better than many sighted people.
Researchers and scientists have been studying how Ben’s brain works so they can help to teach others with visual difficulties to improve their quality of life. The secret is in the clicking and sound waves bouncing off solid surfaces. This process is called echolocation, and dolphins and bats to navigate in the dark, and through ocean waters use it.
Neuroscientists are now finding it possible to retrain the brain of a blind person so they can find their way using the same methods a few other species of mammals have used instinctively for hundreds of years — echolocation.
The subject of this story, Ben lived in Elk Grove, California. He lost his sight at the age of three due to cancer. Ben found he was able to rode his skateboard and bike, do karate, and even beat his sighted friends at video games. How was he able to do that without seeing the screen?
Ben tried, but felt out of place in special schools for the blind. He possesses a cane, but it lay seldom used. He never had a seeing-eye dog. He has been able to get around nearly as well as any other boy his age, by using echoes and clicking noises to detect where objects are so he can maneuver around them. Not only has he been an inspiration to people who know him, but also scientists who want to learn from him.
At around the age of seven he started making clicking noises and would listen to how the echoes from the sounds changed when he was near people or solid surfaces. At first his mother just thought he had super-sensitive hearing, and he was able to increase his hearing where his sight left off. According to his doctors his hearing is normal, just the same as most of the rest of us. What he is using is a system much the same as the dolphins and bats use — a type of sonar that bounces signals off surfaces.
In humans, echolocation allows people to receive echoes bouncing off objects around them. The person himself is actively creating sounds by clicking or tapping, and is trained to interpret the sound waves coming off the objects in order to accurately identify their location and size. This use of “acoustic wayfinding,” or navigation technique is almost as accurate as sight.
The first ever study of human echolocation was conducted in Canada. The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of two blind men who were experts in echolocation. Their findings were recently published in the open access journal PloS ONE. What they found that areas of the brain that normally process vision were activated.
One of the blind experts (known as EB for public purposes) was born with a form of cancer that affects cells in the retinas of the eyes, known as retinoblastoma. The other man (known as LB) lost his vision when he was 14 from a degenerative disease of the optic nerve that carries visual information from the eyes to the brain. Both men trained themselves, just like Ben, to be echolocators, and both use clicking sounds to navigate through town, hike and play baseball.
The researchers asked the two men to identify objects in front of them by using clicking sounds. As they made the sounds the echoes they produced, and their brain activity, were recorded on high-quality stereo equipment. They were instructed to travel around the objects doing the same thing. They were able to determine the shape, size, location and movements of the objects. Some of the recordings contained echoes that were bounced trees, cars and lampposts, while others did not. When the recordings were played back the men were able to identify the objects as well.
The scientists then scanned the brains of the two men along with two sighed people of the same age as a control. The recordings indicated that the portion of the brain that processes sounds (audio cortex) was activated in all four of the subjects. The blind men showed activity in the visual cortex, but not the sighted men. EB, the more experienced echolocator, showed more brain activity in the visual cortex region.
When the brain activity of the men was recorded between the outdoors and the indoors, researchers found the recordings containing echoes activated the visual cortex in the blind participants, but not the auditory. Recordings without the echoes produced the same pattern of activity as from that of the first experiment.
What resulted from this experiment was that scientists were able to see that the blind men used the echolocation technique much the same as most people use vision, and the parts of the brain that are active for vision were charged. Due to the limited number of people in the study, however, researchers are reticent about forming any conclusions.
Numerous other similar studies have found that the brains of blind people reorganizes itself, and the changes produce cross-model activation, which means that portions of the brain that normally do not activate, does.
Ben’s extra-ordinary mother, when she found that he was able to navigate using his clicking sounds continued to encourage him to practice. She was not aware that her son was different, and that other blind people did not usually adapt this way, at least until she tried to enroll him in a school for the blind. Because he was able to do things other blind people can only dream of, he did not fit in and soon left.
To date there have been few studies of human echolocation, and doctors examined Ben extensively to find out how his brain was able to identify objects, their sizes, shapes, distance and locations from all directions. They still have not been able to understand how the human brain adapts itself to be able to accomplish this, but they are beginning to take it more seriously in order to enable more blind people to get around without special assistance.
As for Ben Underwood, his exceptional attitude and outlook were instrumental in allowing scientists to find some answers, and more questions, as to how the human brain compensates for disabilities. Unfortunately, Ben passed away a week before his 17th birthday (2009) from the same cancer that took his sight 13 years before. He left a legacy that hopefully will enable many people to improve their lives, despite their disabilities.
About the author:
Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at BrainAthlete.com.
YouTube: The boy who sees without eyes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikpNZOx5FGk&feature=related
Wikipedia — Human echolocation:
Neurophilosophy — Human echolocation activates visual parts of the brain: http://scienceblogs.com/neurophilosophy/2011/05/human_echolocation_activates_visual_parts_of_the_brain.php