How to Hear a Wall: Do you want to echolocate like bats do?

lifehacks, echolocation, disability
Shane from Supersense
2 minutes reading time
September 11, 2020

Navigating with sound is a fascinating concept. After all, it is not uncommon for a blind person to avoid running into a wall, car, or tree, even though their cane never touched it. In this post, I will briefly describe echolocation and how I've used it to navigate throughout my life.      

A concrete wall on the side of a road with adjacent, partially seen windows
Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash would define echolocation as "the location of objects by reflected sound, in particular that used by animals such as dolphins and bats." This ability might be mainly attributed to animals; however, many blind people frequently take advantage of this, sometimes without even knowing it. So, human echolocation definitely is a thing and it functions quite like dolphin echolocation or bat echolocation, for that matter.

As I just told you, it is very likely that you see blind people using echolocation to locate obstacles around them, and they learn it quite young. For example, when I was a child, I instinctively used echolocation to avoid large objects at the level of my head. As I discovered its usefulness, I tried to develop this skill even further.      

How does echolocation for humans function?

The simplest way to start with echolocation is to think broadly. If you've ever shouted hello to someone on a sidewalk, you might have noticed your voice reverberating off the sides of buildings around you.

This is how your voice's echoing attribute works; your shout's sound waves bounce off of the objects they impact and come back to your ears. With practice, you can mentally retrace the path of those waves', thus locating the object your voice bounced off of.

Let me try and break this down for you. If you are standing in a room, for example, and make a clicking noise with your tongue, you will hear a different echo from the one you hear on the street. This is because your clicking noise is bouncing off the walls that surround you. The room has different dimensions than the outdoor space you were in before. This is why rooms sound different when you put furniture in them.

The closer you get to one wall or an object, the less echo your click will have on the walls you are not directly facing. You will also notice an obstruction in your hearing. Sound traveling through a wall is different from a sound in the same room. If you key into this, you'll be able to notice objects at the level of your head without even looking simply by how they block the echoes of other sounds.

When I navigate, I use the sounds of everything around me to echolocate all the time. When I am having a conversation or listening to traffic on the street, I am analyzing how these sounds hit the objects around me to get a pretty reliable idea of where they are.

If you want to get more advanced, you can explore different surfaces with echolocation. If you angle your head down toward a table, for example, your clicking sound will bounce off of the table cleanly. However, if you put a vase on the same table and make a directed click at it, you will hear a difference in the echo.

There are tons of ways to explore and use echolocation, and honestly, it's pretty fun to navigate with. I urge you to give it a try, and who knows: some people might even think you're Dare Devil!

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