Most individuals require sufficient training to echolocate, by employing their tongue to make clicking sounds, and interpreting the echos that return from the environment.
Researchers have been able to assist participants in navigating obstacles in as little as ten weeks, demonstrating how to recognize the size and orientation of the objects using the rebounding calls of their clicks.
12 participants who were diagnosed as legally blind during their childhood, and 14 visually impaired were participants in the experiment, which was published in 2021.
We usually associate with animals such as bats and whales, but some blind individuals also use the echoes of their own sounds to identify obstacles and outline. Some use the tapping of a cane or the snapping of their fingers to make the necessary noise, while others use their mouths to make a clicking sound.
Despite its potential impact, very few blind individuals are currently taught how to do it. Expert echolocators have worked to develop the word for years, and this research suggests that a simple training schedule is just enough.
"I cannot imagine any other work with blind participants that has received such positive feedback," said psychologist Lore Thaler of Durham University in the United Kingdom in June last year, when the results were released.
Researchers found that both old and young people, both blind and sighted, improved significantly at click-based echolocation over the course of 20 training sessions.
Participants were taught to navigate virtual mazes corridors arranged in T-intersections, U bends, and zig-zags for weeks, identifying the size and orientation of objects using mouth clicks.
In the final two sessions, participants had their new navigation abilities tested in a virtual environment they''d never encountered before. Even though blinded in this unknown environment, collisions were less likely than they had been before.
Manifestly, the echo of their own clicks aided individuals in getting along with the course with greater ease than they did.
In the real world, these newly trained echolocators performed well in the chaos as seven expert echolocators who had mastered this skill for years.
Participants in the study performed exactly as they were in addition to additional testing to determine the shape and orientation of certain surfaces.
Unlike previous studies, sighted individuals may receive click-based echolocation in a number of training sessions, but this was the first time to verify whether the findings should be applied to blind people and individuals of all ages.
The visual parts of the brain are the ones that enable echolocators to''see'' the world around them, and it''s unclear if those who grow up without vision may use the same neural networks to the same extent.
Aside from that, many people lose their vision and hearing as they age, and the older a person is, the less plastic their brain.
This may make learning new skills more difficult as you rise up, but the research suggests that echolocation isn''t a limiting factor. In the study, blind individuals as old as 79 were able to pick up the skill with the appropriate training.
When the authors studied their findings (of their admittedly minor experiment), they found that age in itself was not linked to further collisions in the maze task.
"Importantly, when we assessed the degree to which participants improved from session 1 to session 20 in their abilities across each of the tasks, there was no evidence for an association between age and performance," the authors said.
The authors say that even the younger age allowed some participants to finish the mazes quicker, but that "training facilitated remarkable behavioral changes for all participants" regardless of age.
Blind participants said they had experienced improved mobility after the training sessions ended. In a follow-up survey, ten out of twelve participants said the skill had boosted their self-worth and health.
"We are very pleased about this," said Thaler, and we believe it would make sense to provide information and training in click-based echolocation to individuals who may still have good functional vision, but who are expected to lose vision later in life because of severe degenerative eye conditions."
The study was published in PLOS One.
The first version of this article was published in June 2021.