July 8, 2021 – Humans have a sixth sense that most of us don’t use, but they can learn.
Some blind people have already figured out how to take advantage of this, in the same way that dolphins navigate underwater and bats find their way in complete darkness. Scientists say it’s only a matter of time before others figure out how to do it, too.
Our five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—help us understand and perceive the world around us. But according to two recent studies, people can take advantage of what’s called the sixth sense and learn to navigate through darkness when sight can not be penetrated.
Dolphins and some other animals use biosonar, called echolocation, to get around even when gloomy, dark water prevents them from seeing. Bats seem to sense sound as they jump off obstacles as they fly unhindered through dark spaces.
“People use echolocation passively all the time,” says Dr Laure Thaler, associate professor of psychology at Durham University in the UK.
Thaler explains that when a person walks into a room and intuitively understands whether a space is small or large and whether or not it contains furniture, it is likely that they have based their intuition on echoes and frequencies.
Blind people sometimes tap a stick or gently step on their feet to help them sense the space around them. Scientists say humans can also locate an echo by clicking fingers or making clicking sounds with their mouths, because the sound waves it creates bounce off nearby objects.
People with little or no training can learn how to use these echoes to determine the shape, size, or texture of something.
This is not an elusive superpower. Active sensing is something a lot of people have mastered, says Daniel Kish, founder and president of World Access for the Blind. The California-based nonprofit is helping train people who are unable to see to use echolocation, among other tactics, to navigate the world around them.
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in a new way a studyThaler and her colleagues tested whether people could learn echolocation.
Participants attended 20 training sessions – two per week for 10 weeks – and then tried to use echolocation to determine the size and orientation of the object in the lab. In addition, they completed the task of navigation on the computer, where they listened to sounds and moved around objects.
“We had a huge age range — 21 to 79 — and it included both sighted and blind people, and they all learned,” Thaler says.
For people who could not see, developing their active sensory abilities increased their ability to move independently and improved their sense of well-being.
In a second study, Miwa Soumya, PhD, who has since joined Thaler’s lab, and her colleagues 15 untrained participants in echolocation sent sound waves, from tablet computers, that were similar to the noises bats use when they fly in the dark. They were then asked whether the cylinder in the room they could not see was moving or stationary.
Even with no training, most participants knew the answer. Somaya and her colleagues say it may not be difficult for people to understand and use this technology as they interact with their environment.
However, some participants were much better at this than others, they say.
This is something Kish says his nonprofit has seen in the real world, outside of the lab as well. “Blind people recognize this much more quickly,” he notes.
“I think early humans were very auditory and probably used echolocation,” he says. “Most of human existence happened without artificial light, so we spent a lot of time in the dark. We spent time in caves, and we had to figure out what was around us to avoid threats and predators. And you can hear around corners much easier than you can see around them, and you can hear from Through the foliage is much easier than you can see through it.”
In fact, there is evidence that as early as the 1700s, blind people used echolocation to maneuver through society, says Andrew Kolarek, PhD, of Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.
Studies have already shown that in the absence of sight, the brain will activate other senses to compensate.
“The brain type rewires itself in blindness,” Kolarik explains.
This new version amplifies the auditory system to improve a person’s ability to hear and use other senses in powerful new ways.