Echolocation is a technique that uses sound waves to find and detect objects. Some studies suggest that some blind people have developed echolocation to better navigate the world around them.

Some nonhuman animals, such as dolphins and bats, regularly use echolocation to help them navigate. To echolocate, an animal makes a sound and then waits for the sound wave to bounce back, helping them to determine how close an object is.

Echolocation is a skill that a person may be able to learn with practice, provided they have the ability to hear. People who learn how to echolocate may make clicking sounds to help them navigate the world, or use devices that make subtle sounds.

This article discusses what echolocation is in more detail, whether humans can echolocate, its potential benefits, and learning how to echolocate.

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Echolocation uses sound waves to help a person determine their own location relative to other objects. This can help them navigate the space around them, as well as detect surrounding objects.

People who use echolocation generate sounds, usually clicks, and then wait for the sound waves to bounce back. The noise those sound waves make may provide information about how close objects are and how large they are, for example. This information helps a person navigate their environment.

According to research from 2020, people who echolocate usually listen for at least three sound components while navigating their surroundings, which are:

  • pitch
  • loudness
  • sharpness

Many animals appear to naturally echolocate, and begin doing so early in life. It is possible humans are born with the capacity to echolocate, or even that some naturally do so without learning. However, many people may not feel that they can echolocate, and no recent research suggests that this is an ability humans have from birth.

Some research indicates that blind people, individuals with low vision, and sighted people may learn to echolocate by using sounds like clicks, although many different techniques may work.

A small 2019 study confirmed that blindness correlates with increased sensitivity in the brain’s auditory cortex when blindness occurs early in someone’s life. The auditory cortex is the part of the brain that manages a person’s sense of hearing.

This suggests that both blindness and age may affect the brain’s ability to increase hearing sensitivity and potentially enable echolocation. However, the authors of the study noted that further research into this topic is necessary.

A 2021 study of blind and sighted individuals who took a 10-week course on echolocation found that both groups of individuals improved their skill significantly over time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 6 million Americans have vision loss, and 1 million are blind. Blindness is common, yet blind people occupy a world in which many assume that all people have vision.

This can affect a blind person’s safety in public spaces, as well as their ability to use technology, find objects they need at work, or avoid danger.

Echolocation cannot help a person read a screen or clock. But it may help with many everyday tasks, especially those that affect safety. Some potential benefits include:

  • Better navigation in public spaces: This may include locating elevators, assessing how close other people are, and avoiding stationary objects.
  • Greater safety as a pedestrian: A person may be able to more accurately estimate how close vehicles are or more effectively navigate sidewalks.
  • Managing a household: A person might use echolocation to clean, find objects they need, or locate a seat.
  • Greater independence: People who learn to echolocate may not have to rely on others as much to navigate spaces, especially public spaces which may pose more risks to blind individuals.

The 2021 study of blind individuals who learned echolocation, mentioned in the previous section, found that all reported improved mobility, and 83% reported greater well-being and independence.

While people who are blind from an early age may have stronger auditory processing skills, there is no evidence that people are born with the ability to echolocate. However, echolocation is a skill that a person may be able to develop on their own or learn from an expert.

Many different types of echolocation exist. A person might click, hum, sing, or speak. Alternatively, they may use a device to generate sound. The only necessary prerequisite is that a person must have the ability to hear.

Research has found that people can learn to echolocate, often quite quickly.

In the same 2021 study discussed in previous sections, researchers assessed the ability of both blind and sighted people to learn echolocation. In a 10-week program, both groups significantly improved their click-based echolocation skills.

In some cases, sighted individuals outperformed blind individuals, especially when the sighted individuals were younger. This suggests that age may affect the ability to echolocate since younger age correlates with greater brain plasticity or adaptability. However, older individuals in the study were still able to learn how to echolocate.

People interested in learning to echolocate may find the most support from taking a class with experts from nonprofit organizations, like World Access for the Blind.

While it may be possible for someone to teach themselves, this process requires feedback from others on where objects are located, and training to cultivate greater hearing sensitivity. In a classroom setting, a person’s learning may accelerate more quickly.

In theory, anyone can learn to echolocate, though early blindness may increase auditory sensitivity, potentially making echolocation easier for blind individuals to learn. Additionally, younger people may be able to make better improvements in learning to echolocate.

Blind individuals may find that echolocation is a useful tool for increasing independence, mobility, and safety.

People hoping to learn to echolocate may find support from a class, or they may be able to teach themselves with feedback from others.