How I was blindfolded – then tried to 'see' like a bat

Blind people are being taught a revolutionary technique that allows them to live independently. Jerome Taylor tries it out

On a blustery day in Glasgow, Alex Campbell and his wife Kerry are taking a walk through town. Both are visually impaired and use white canes as they stride with confidence across roads, broken paving slabs and down flights of stairs. But what makes this couple unusual is that every now and then they emit a short, sharp click with their tongue.

Click HERE to view graphic (128k jpg)

To an onlooker the click is barely noticeable. But for Kerry and Alex, the sound that travels out of their mouths, bounces off the objects around them and returns to their ears in a split-second helps them paint in their minds a portrait of the world around them.

The married couple are two of just a handful of people in Britain that have been taught to use echo-location which – as the name suggests – is the same sort of method bats and dolphins use to get around.

Visually impaired people often use sound to help them navigate. But what makes echo-location different is that those who have refined the art are able to pinpoint obstacles with remarkable detail. "Over time and with practice you build up a whole library of sounds," explains Alex, 47. "You start with simple objects like a wall, a ball or a table before moving on to a tree, a car or a distant building."

It may sound like science fiction but those who are best at echo-location are so proficient that they can ride skateboards or bikes through busy streets despite being entirely blind.

If you don't believe it type "Daniel Kish" into YouTube. Mr Kish is often described as a "human bat" and has pioneered echo-location to such a point that he can make out faraway buildings and happily goes solo hiking in the hills above Los Angeles. Four years ago the 44-year-old, who lost both eyes to an aggressive form of cancer shortly after birth, came to Britain at the invitation of Visibility, a Glasgow-based charity, to teach his skills to people such as Alex and Kerry.

For Kerry, who has never been able to see and began learning echo-location four years ago, the clicks have given her confidence to explore new places and stray from her regular routes.

"If I ever get lost around town I can make a click and know where I am," she says. "It suddenly makes you so much more aware of your surroundings, the landmarks across the city, the bus stops, park benches or an overhead footbridge. You are able to find these things before your cane does. That's incredibly liberating."

Even though the technique has been shown to vastly improve some people's mobility, it has yet to gain widespread acceptance among instructors. "Some of our most staunch opponents are blind people who just don't want to be bothered with raising themselves to a higher standard," claims Mr Kish, whose charity World Access for the Blind has pioneered the teaching of echo-location. "Any time you have an innovation within any profession it is not quickly or easily embraced."

Echo-location takes constant practice. Those who promote echo-location say their intention is not to replace a cane, but compliment it, to become part of a package of tools that can help the visually impaired become more mobile and independent.

Professor Gordon Dutton, a British ophthalmologist and leading expert on cerebral visual impairments, has become a supporter of echo-location, but says that those who wish to use it must work hard. "Mastering echo-location takes years of work, you need to put in something like 10,000 man hours to get to the level of someone like Daniel... You have to put huge amounts of work in and entirely reprogramme the way your brain thinks."

Neurologists are paying increasing attention to people like Mr Kish precisely because they appear to have reprogrammed their brain. It is a phenomenon that researchers refer to as neuro-plasticity, and is helping us understand the brain's hidden talents.

Scientists in Canada published a paper last week based on MRI scans of the brains of two proficient echo-locators, one of whom was Mr Kish. Researchers placed microphones inside the ears of the echo-locators and recorded the sounds coming back to them. The subjects were put inside a scanner and the sounds replayed to them, and they were asked to describe the image in their head.

The scan results were remarkable. When the sound was replayed the part of the brain usually associated with sight was activated, rather than the auditory cortex which analyses sounds. "This suggests that visual brain areas play an important role for echo-location in blind people," said Dr Lore Thaler, from University of Western Ontario.

For Mr Kish, the results of the scans were something he had suspected. "To a blind person an image without visual elements can still be extraordinarily sophisticated, complex and detailed," he said.

Suggested Topics
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"