Is Sonar Boy for real?

The state of the universe.
Dec. 1 2006 5:05 PM

The Mystery of Sonar Boy

Bats use echolocation. Can people use it, too?

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Meanwhile, the same postwar period had seen the development of another branch of research on people who were visually impaired. Staffers at military hospitals spent much of the 1940s figuring out how to teach orientation and mobility skills to blinded World War II veterans. Aspects of the "O&M" program they developed—which made use of long canes and reflected sound—are still in use today. Earlier this year, a panel of O&M experts included echolocation on a list of skills that should be taught to every blind student.

Everyone agrees that sonar can be useful, but the extent to which it should be relied upon remains a controversial issue in O&M. A few specialists, like Dan Kish (the expert quoted in People), believe that echolocation can be used as a primary mode of getting around. But it's more often taught as a secondary skill—to be employed only in conjunction with a cane or guide dog. (A specialist might suggest tapping the end of a metal-tipped cane for sonar feedback.)

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Many O&M specialists believe that even the most talented echolocaters would be better off—that is, safer—with a more conventional mode of navigation. Even Ben Underwood's own specialist worries over his reliance on clicks. "It would be much safer for him to use a cane," the specialist told the Sacramento Bee back in May. For all his skill, the specialist added, Ben still runs into people and trees and walls.

The story of Ben Underwood propagates another idea that advocates for blind people find uncomfortable. They've been working for years to dispel the long-standing "myth" that people without sight can compensate for their deficit with superhuman hearing or touch. (Some people who are blind don't hear well at all, and the ones who do would rather not be thought of as freaks of nature.) And now here comes the amazing Sonar Boy, the Boy Who Sees With Sound.

Did Ben get to be so good at echolocation because of some extraordinary brain development? Or is it just that he's been practicing in his every waking minute for eight years? Kellogg's experiments couldn't distinguish between the two. Even today, scientists don't have a handle on the extent to which blind people are better at using their ears.

If people who are blind really do have exceptional hearing, it's not easy to demonstrate it in the lab. It wasn't until the late 1990s that blind test subjects were shown to be better at localizing sounds, and even then it was only for sounds that originated from off to the side. (Subsequent work implied that blind people are worse at localizing sounds from directly ahead of them.) Other experiments suggest that the blind may be slightly better than average at discriminating pitch and that their ears might be a bit more sensitive to echo cues. Sensory compensation may not be a myth, but it's not a miracle, either.

Just like the Sonar Boy. We were all amazed by his ability to sense objects with tongue clicks, but we only believed in him because he's blind. We knew that humans can't use sonar, but we were just as certain that blindness can make you superhuman. That pair of misconceptions was enough to make Ben Underwood a celebrity.

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