Humans can learn ‘echolocation’ in just 10 weeks, scientific experiment proves

(ORDO NEWS) — With enough practice, most people can learn echolocation: they use their tongue to make clicking sounds and analyze echoes reflected from their environment.

In just 10 weeks, the researchers were able to teach participants how to navigate obstacles and recognize the size and orientation of objects from clicks reflected from their tongues.

The experiment involved 12 people who were diagnosed with blindness in childhood, and 14 sighted people.

Echolocation is a skill we usually associate with animals like bats and whales, but some blind people also use the echo of their own sounds to detect obstacles and their outlines. Some use the tapping of a cane or snapping their fingers to create the necessary noise, while others use their mouth to do so, making a clicking sound.

Despite how useful this skill can be, very few blind people are trained in it at present. Sonar experts have been trying to spread this skill for years, and this study shows that a simple learning schedule is sufficient.

“I can’t think of any other work with blind participants that has received such rave reviews,” said psychologist Lore Thaler from the University of Durham in the UK when the results of the study were published.

In 20 training sessions lasting about 2-3 hours, the researchers found that blind and sighted participants, both old and young, significantly improved their click echolocation skills.

Over the course of several weeks, participants were trained to navigate virtual mazes corridors with T-junctions, U-turns, and zigzags and to determine the size and orientation of objects using sonic clicks.

In the last two sessions, participants tested their new navigational skills in a virtual maze they had never completed before. Even blinded in this unknown environment, there were fewer collisions than at the beginning of the program.

Obviously, the echoes of their own clicks helped people to navigate in space with greater ease than before.

In fact, the authors found that these newly trained echolocators performed almost as well in the maze as seven sonar experts who had used the skill for years.

In additional tests to determine the shape and orientation of certain surfaces, the study participants showed the same results as the experts.

Previous studies have also shown that sighted people can learn click-based echolocation through a series of training sessions, but this is the first study to test whether the results extend to blind people and people of different ages.

The visual regions of the brain allow echolocators to “see” the world around them, and it is still unclear whether people who grew up without vision can use the same neural networks to the same extent.

Moreover, many people lose sight and hearing with age, and the older a person is, the less plastic his brain is.

This can make it harder to learn new skills with age, but research shows that this is not a limiting factor in echolocation training. In the study, blind people aged 79 were able to master this skill with the right training.

When the authors analyzed the results of their small experiment, they found that older age per se was not associated with more collisions in the maze problem.

“Importantly, when we quantified the degree of improvement in participants’ abilities from session 1 to session 20 on each task, there was no association between age and performance on the practical tasks,” the authors write.

The younger age allowed some participants to complete the mazes faster, but in practice, according to the authors, “the training resulted in marked changes in the behavior of all participants,” regardless of age.

Three months after the end of training, the blind participants reported that they had improved locomotion using echolocation. In a follow-up survey, 10 out of 12 participants said that this skill helped them gain independence and well-being.

“We’re very excited about this,” Thaler said, “and we think it makes sense to provide information and teach click echolocation to people who may still have good functional vision but who are expected to lose their sight later in life due to for progressive degenerative eye diseases.”

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