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Department of Psychology

Staff

Publication details for Dr Lore Thaler

Thaler, L. & Goodale, M.A. (2016). Echolocation in humans: an overview. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 7(6): 382-393.

Author(s) from Durham

Abstract

Bats and dolphins are known for their ability to use echolocation. They emit bursts of sounds and listen to the echoes that bounce back to detect the objects in their environment. What is not as well-known is that some blind people have learned to do the same thing, making mouth clicks, for example, and using the returning echoes from those clicks to sense obstacles and objects of interest in their surroundings. The current review explores some of the research that has examined human echolocation and the changes that have been observed in the brains of echolocation experts. We also discuss potential applications and assistive technology based on echolocation. Blind echolocation experts can sense small differences in the location of objects, differentiate between objects of various sizes and shapes, and even between objects made of different materials, just by listening to the reflected echoes from mouth clicks. It is clear that echolocation may enable some blind people to do things that are otherwise thought to be impossible without vision, potentially providing them with a high degree of independence in their daily lives and demonstrating that echolocation can serve as an effective mobility strategy in the blind. Neuroimaging has shown that the processing of echoes activates brain regions in blind echolocators that would normally support vision in the sighted brain, and that the patterns of these activations are modulated by the information carried by the echoes. This work is shedding new light on just how plastic the human brain is.