Blind people are able to use echolocation to “see” their environment, but even the sighted can learn this skill, claims a recent study.
Participants of the new experiment learned to use echolocation in a virtual environment – that is, to obtain information about the environment with the help of reflected sound waves from the walls. Typically, the human brain suppresses echoes, but perceives it when people use echolocation.
In contrast to previous studies of this phenomenon, this one was dedicated to the suppression of echo – the phenomenon of echo neutralization by the human brain so that the original sound can be heard more clearly. This ability is useful because otherwise the human speech would be nearly indistinguishable.
In the experiment, the sighted participants wore headphones with microphones. In the phase of “hearing” they listened to the sounds and the simulated echo through headphones, and it was necessary to distinguish the position of the sound source from the source of its echo.
In the “echolocation” phase, the participants produced the sounds themselves. Computer processor simulated echo from these sounds, and played it back to the headphones.
The sighted participants learned to determine the position of the sound reflector in the same way as they determined the position of the sound source in the first phase of the experiment.
But if people are capable of echolocation, why do not they use it all the time? “Unless you’re running around in a dark environment or with a blindfold, echolocation is simply not needed,” says neuroscientist Lore Thaler. Although the study showed that sighted people can learn this skill, blind people are usually better in it.
Maybe blind people are better attuned to the sound environment. Or, perhaps, the resources of the brain, usually used for the sight, are redirected to the hearing, says Thaler.
“However, I think this is a very interesting finding, and I want to see what results will be shown by the blind people in this experiment,” says the neuroscientist.