WHAT IS “SONARVISION”?
The “superhero” character Daredevil from Marvel Comics uses a type of radar or sonar to see the world around him.
Can We Believe In A Human Superpower?
Recent studies have shown that the brains of people who have been blind since birth or an early age rewire themselves to adapt to the loss of a sensory ability. As Science Daily reported, “The brains of those who are born blind make new connections in the absence of visual information, resulting in enhanced, compensatory abilities such as a heightened sense of hearing, smell and touch, as well as cognitive functions (such as memory and language) according to a new study led by Massachusetts Eye and Ear researchers. The report, published online in PLOS One, describes for the first time the combined structural, functional and anatomical changes in the brain evident in those born with blindness that are not present in normally sighted people.
Through our research partnerships over the years, we have learned that it is necessary for the brain to be “trained” or repeatedly stimulated over time to activate this rewiring.
We’ve previously discovered that the echoes from our specialized FlashSonar™ tongue clicks activate, or “light up” the Visual Cortex – the part of the brain normally involved in processing sight that people presume goes dormant in a blind person.
In our process that we call “Visioneering”, we augment the brain training and Visual Cortex activation with full-length Perception Cane training using longer than traditional blind navigation canes to provide additional perceptual context which all combines to produce a sort of fuzzy spatial geometry that we call SonarVision – “seeing with sound”.
“When I think of Daniel Kish (Lead Visioneer) riding bikes and hiking, using his own type of sonar to guide him, I’m reminded that superheroes can exist in real life, and perhaps that is the ultimate appeal: to spawn and cultivate a belief in our own strength.”
That quote from writer Shoshana Seidman in a 2015 article in TheFanzine which raises two very interesting questions: “Is blindness real and objective or is it a societal construction? Are the blind really unable to see, or is there more to the story?”.
We know there is more to the story.
For convenience, we’ve placed Shoshana’s article in the tab Daredevil vs. Batman along with the NPR Invisibilia recordings and a link to their transcripts that she quoted from. We invite you to explore the Science of SonarVision throughout the other tabs in this section, and throughout this page. Feel free to send any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Echolocation To FlashSonar To SonarVision
Brain Scan Studies and Perspectives in Neural Science
“We are not teaching skills; we are activating neurology.” – Daniel Kish
Insight Magazine, United Kingdom – September, 2008
Gordon Dutton, Emeritus Professor of Vision Science, Glasgow
Caledonian University, Consultant Ophthalmologist
Professor Gordon Dutton, highly reputed Neural Pediatric Ophthalmologist gives his perspective on the positive impact of FlashSonar training on blind children.
PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science) – May, 2011
by Thaler L, Arnott SR, Goodale MA
University, Western Ontario
A small percentage of blind people are adept at echolocating silent objects simply by producing mouth clicks and listening to the returning echoes. The neural architecture underlying this type of human echolocation has not previously been investigated. The functional brain activity of Daniel Kish (early blind) and Brian Bushway (late blind) were measured while they listened to their own echolocation sounds. When brain activity were compared for sounds that contained both clicks and the returning echoes vs. brain activity for control sounds that did not contain the echoes, but were otherwise acoustically matched, activity was found in the visual cortex in both individuals. Importantly, for the same comparison, a difference in activity in auditory cortex was not observed. The activity in Daniel’s visual cortex was found to be greater for echoes reflected from surfaces located in contralateral space – the side of the visual cortex opposite to the side at which the sound/echo was presented. These findings suggest that processing of click-echoes recruits brain regions typically devoted to vision rather than audition in both early and late blind echolocation experts, and that the patterns of processing echoes closely resemble those of processing visual input. “We thank Daniel Kish and Brian Bushway … who acted as consultants throughout the experiments, providing invaluable technical and practical advice about echolocation and the nature of the testing materials …” More articles about this work and related topics can be found on our “Health and Well Being” page.
“It is important to emphasize that the use of echolocation in the blind goes well beyond localizing objects in the environment. The experts we studied were also able to use echolocation to perceive object shape and motion – and even object identity. In addition, they were able to use passive listening with 10-kHz cut-off to do these kinds of tasks – which made it possible for us to probe neural substrates of their abilities. … our data clearly show that EB and LB use echolocation in a way that seems uncannily similar to vision. In this way, our study shows that echolocation can provide blind people with a high degree of independence and self-reliance in their daily life. This has broad practical implications in that echolocation is a trainable skill that can potentially offer powerful and liberating opportunities for blind and vision-impaired people.”
Toward a Science of Consciousness – April, 2012
Prof. Lore Thaler
Lore Thaler presents the current brain scan research to indicate the role of the visual cortex and other brain mechanisms in the processing of human FlashSonar.
Neuropsychologia – February, 2013
Stephen Arnott, Lore Thaler, Jennifer Milne, Daniel Kish, Melvyn Goodale
We have previously reported that an early-blind echolocating individual (EB) showed robust occipital activation when he identified distant, silent objects based on echoes from his tongue clicks (Thaler, Arnott, & Goodale, 2011). In the present study we investigated the extent to which echolocation activation in EB’s occipital cortex reflected general echolocation processing per se versus feature-specific processing.
Adv Exp Med Biol – 2013
Sven Schörnich, Ludwig Wallmeier, Nikodemus Gessele, Andreas Nagy, Michael Schranner, Daniel Kish, Lutz Wiegrebe
“The skills of some blind humans orienting in their environment through the auditory analysis of reflections from self-generated sounds, has received only little scientific attention to date. Here we present data from a series of formal psychophysical experiments with sighted subjects trained to evaluate features of a virtual echo-acoustic space, allowing for rigid and fine-grain control of the stimulus parameters. The data show how subjects shape both their vocalisations and auditory analysis of the echoes to serve specific echo-acoustic tasks.”
Neural Correlates of Motion Processing through Echolocation, Source Hearing and Vision in Blind Echolocation Experts and Sighted Echolocation Novices
Journal of Neurophysiology – October 16, 2013
American Physiological Society
Lore Thaler, Jennifer L Milne, Stephen R Arnott, Daniel Kish, and Melvyn A Goodale
“We have shown in previous research that motion processing through echolocation activates temporal-occipital cortex in blind echolocation experts. Here we investigated how neural substrates of echo-motion are related to neural substrates of auditory source-motion and visual motion. … Our data suggest a functional segregation of processing of auditory source-motion and echo-motion in human temporal-occipital cortex. Furthermore, the data suggest that the echo-motion response in blind experts may represent a reorganization rather than exaggeration of response observed in sighted novices. There is the possibility that this reorganization [in the blind echolocators] involves the recruitment of ‘visual’ cortical areas.”
Articles and news pieces on the plasticity of blind brains that learn to see.
Vision Research – July, 2014,
By Jennifer Milne, Stephen Arnott, Daniel Kish, Melvyn Goodale, Lore Thaler Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, Canada
“Some blind humans use sound to navigate by emitting mouth-clicks and listening to the echoes that reflect from silent objects and surfaces in their surroundings. These echoes contain information about the size, shape, location, and material properties of objects. Here we present results from an fMRI experiment that investigated the neural activity underlying the processing of materials through echolocation. … a whole brain analysis, in which we isolated the processing of just the reflected echoes, revealed a material-related increase in BOLD activation in a region of left parahippocampal cortex in the echolocating participants, but not in the blind or sighted control participants. Our results, in combination with previous findings about brain areas involved in material processing, are consistent with the idea that material processing by means of echolocation relies on a multi-modal material processing area in parahippocampal cortex.”
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Prof. Mel Goodale Presents
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Symbolism vs. Reality
Visioneers Lead Founder and President Daniel Kish has long been called “The Real-Life Batman” by various media outlets, because Daniel echolocates like bats, not because of any correlation with the DC Comics superhero.
In more recent years following the release of Marvel Entertainment’s “Daredevil” movie, many people have suggested it would be more accurate to call Daniel “The Real-Life Daredevil”, since Daredevil uses a kind of sonar or radar echolocation to “see”. Some fans even go as far as to suggest Daredevil should be named “Batman”. According to Daniel, “I am a bit more like Dare Devil, I guess, in the sense that he and I both echolocate, whereas Batman actually doesn’t. However, my echolocation capacities were never instantly enhanced by radioactive substances. I had to work for whatever capacities I have, which at its essence relates more to Batman.”
The Reluctant Bat Man
As you’ll discover in the “SonarVision: The Science of Seeing With Sound” video below, Daniel was never really comfortable with the whole Batman thing, as he explained in a forthcoming interview:
“I was initially resistant to the moniker, because it confuses me with an icon that is very unlike me in most respects, and who wants to live up to that level of “superherodom”? The reality always falls short of the legend. It doesn’t help to further amp up the legend.
That said, Batman has stood out as my favorite superhero, and one with whom I have an affinity. There are some important commonalities between myself, bat man, and Batman the comic character.
The most important of these I think is that, Batman is one of the few superheroes who isn’t augmented artificially by some contrivance. He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive something; he didn’t come from another planet or dimension; he wasn’t the result of some scientific experiment; he wasn’t touched by gods or aliens; and in the original incarnation, he wasn’t wrapped in hyper technology. His heroic abilities come from his painstakingly developing his own capacities out of his own humanity and personhood. He made himself who and what he is, which I think is something we can all do. I feel like I was inspired to do this insofar as developing my own brain and perceptual-navigation system to find new ways to see, new ways to access and interact with the world in my own way on my own terms.
The Shared Drive For Social Justice
The other quality I guess I as bat man share with Batman is a drive for social justice and fair equity. The systematic ways in which blind people, especially blind children are marginalized, disempowered, isolated, conditioned to dependency, limited, and denied access to the community exchange of goods, services, and companionship is unjust and unfair, and therefore nothing short of criminal. The most insidious part is that it is all often done in the name of kindness, and “for your own good”, if you will.
The other insidious part is that the blind population at large has drunk the kool-aid, so to speak, and inculcated many of the very conventions, perspectives, and practices that limit and disempower us. In a way I guess one could say I am on something of a crusade, but it is not really a crusade to save, protect, or rescue people. It is more a crusade to help make sure that we as a population can empower ourselves to turn this around for ourselves by our own strengths and capacities as equal and able citizens. It is we who need to step up to the plate to find and claim our own freedom. at every point in history repressed populations have found their freedom by claiming it for themselves.
It is rarely granted out of kindness or clemency without it being earned by toil and hard work at the very least. We as blind people cannot wait until freedoms are handed to us from on high. Freedom granted always comes with conditions and provisions that belie the very essence of freedom. I just want to help bring this about.”
“I Don’t Do Helpless”
When asked if he had a favorite Batman quote, Daniel replied, “Yeah, but its full meaning needs a context: On one of the 90’s animated series episodes, Batman and an associate are trapped in some mad man of choice’s lab. The mad man activates a contraption that scrambles the visual field somehow such that everyone just loses balance and can’t function. His lab is riddled with traps so they can never get out. The partner says, “We’re helpless!” Batman stalwartly states, “I don’t do helpless.” and he closes his eyes and leads them through all the traps by responding to sound and touch.
All that said, “I don’t do helpless” maybe stands strongly enough on its own.”
BLINDNESS, BATS, AND BELIEF AS THE ONLY SUPERPOWER WE NEED: ON DAREDEVIL AND BEYOND
The dark can be a terrifying place to be. In love, in grief, in sight: there is a disorienting fear of blindness. The term itself is used with a negative connotation almost universally, and blindness has been enacted as a punishment in societies from ancient Greece to modern Pakistan. We depend heavily on visual cues even if we truly see only what’s on the surface. Though there are five senses, sight seems to hold a special value in society.
Every morning that I wake up, the world is a blur, objects resembling those in Renoir’s Impressionistic paintings, soft edges and strokes. I’m fairly nearsighted, and have worn contact lenses since I was ten years old. Now I am thirty-two, and have begun to develop floating black shapes in my line of vision. These floaters are caused by bits of collagen detaching from the retina as you age. They’re small and I’ve learned to ignore them for the most part, but they’re also a constant reminder that vision is not stagnant or certain. As I get older, vision becomes more precarious, more difficult to bank on. I begin to doubt the pictures I see, sometimes covering one eye and then the other to notice the subtle differences in color, in shades, in clarity of detail. I begin to realize in terror that my sense of smell is underdeveloped, that my hearing is dulled. My alternate tools of survival do not seem favorable in Darwin’s model of the fittest.
When I was twelve, I accidentally fell asleep with my contact lenses in and almost went blind. Luckily I got to the eye doctor just in time, and as a child this did not have such an impact, even though I was in a lot of pain and it took months to heal. I never truly thought about it in the bigger picture, but at age thirty-two my slowly devolving vision reminds me of mortality. I am terrified of the darkness I fear, of not being able to trust my eyesight as I get older. I take pictures fervently, obsessed with producing images, of curating a visual narrative.
Yet what if blindness is not something to be feared at all? What if it is, in fact, a social construction? If we posit blindness as a negative, a void, a lacking, that is what the blind will come to be. And yet what if having high expectations of the blind could completely turn this perception, and thus reality, around? We often hear that cultivating a high expectation of students in the classroom leads to better results. So what if we apply this principle to the condition of blindness?
This is exactly what Daniel Kish believes. Featured on NPR’s podcast “Invisibilia” [Embedded below this article] with co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, Kish relates his story of blindness and how he learned to excel despite this physical handicap. He became blind at the age of thirteen [Editor’s Note: Should read 13 months.] due to retinal blastoma. Yet from a young age, his mother developed a hands-off approach and allowed him to navigate the world around him even though he could no longer see. He continued to attend a regular school and began to learn to echolocate, in which he clicked his tongue to understand where he was in space, much like bats. Learning this skill allowed him to walk to school on his own, make his own lunches, climb, and eventually learn to ride a bike.
His classmate Adam Shaible, however, attended the School for the Blind for several years before coming to Daniel’s school. At the School for the Blind, Shaible wasn’t expected to do anything for himself, so he never learned how. People made him food, helped him walk, and never allowed him to engage in any activity that was remotely dangerous. When Daniel met him, he couldn’t understand why Shaible was so helpless. But now that he’s an adult, Kish knows that it was precisely because Shaible was given such low expectations of what he was able to do, and so he lived up to these lower expectations. As Kish states, “So this is what life will have in store for you – basically nothing, OK? Nothing.”
Today, Kish helps teach blind children how to do many things on their own by echolocation. He makes them climb trees, and cross streets by themselves. Some may view this as dangerous and irresponsible, but Kish firmly believes it’s necessary for these children to develop self-sufficiency. As he says, “Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster.” Kish is attempting to undo the repercussions of societal low expectations, one child at a time.
In fact the concept of echolocation is not a new one, and has been studied by scientists since the 1950s. When left to their own devices, it has been shown that many blind children will intuitively click their tongues as a way to navigate their surroundings, yet this process is often stopped short by societal norms. But the question remains–is blindness real and objective or is it a societal construction? Are the blind really unable to see, or is there more to the story?
As the episode of “Invisibilia” continues, researchers are interviewed who have studied the brains of the blind. It turns out that some blind people can actually see images with a certain spatial quality and depth. When “shown” certain objects, the visual cortex in these blind people still lights up. The person is still constructing an image in the mind and so actually does have a sort of sight. Some people compare this vision to our peripheral vision, where they can see something but not a complete image. However, not all blind people demonstrate this activity in their brains. It is much more common in those who have learned to echolocate, further proving the importance of allowing blind children to develop this skill, and setting the expectation for their abilities high from a young age.
Most comic book heroes capture our interest because of their superhuman powers. There’s Spiderman, who has the agility and strength of a spider, and Superman, whose Kryptonian body gives him immunity from most harm. The recent release of Daredevil on Netflix has enthralled viewers with its fight scenes, plot twists, comedic jabs, and suspenseful action. This isn’t an original series, but rather an adaptation of the Marvel comic Daredevil, which was first released in 1964, and later made into a 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck. And what exactly is this comic book hero’s superpower? Daredevil, known also as his alter ego Matthew Murdock, is blind.
As a child Murdock is blinded by a radioactive substance that falls from an oncoming truck. Though he loses his vision, his other senses are enhanced to great levels, and he is left with a type of sonar, which acts as his vision. He uses these heightened senses to guide him through the world, avenging his father’s death and fighting evil. So his superpower is the fact that he can navigate the world like someone who can see, but even better.
Murdock doesn’t immediately relish in his newfound ability. In fact the extra loud noises that surround him frighten him. One day, however, an older blind man known as Stick comes into his life, teaching him how to harness the powers of his sonar, and how to kick some ass while doing it. Stick is not sweet, and he doesn’t hold Murdock’s hand. Rather, he is firm, and has high expectations. Daredevil internalizes these high expectations, and learns to use his heightened senses constructively.
Stick, in a way, is reminiscent of Daniel Kish. He liberates Murdock by believing against constraining him. As Kish relates during the NPR podcast, [Editor’s Note: This is actually said by Daniel Norris of the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.] “When you lighten someone’s load you don’t allow them to expand.” Stick is a purveyor of tough love, and slowly yet surely Murdock learns how to “see” in a way that extends beyond the visual realm. He can hear noises far away, and through the blurring cacophony he is able to extract sounds of trouble to help him fight evil. He hears the heartbeat of the people around him, and can use this to judge whether they are truthful or dishonest, good or bad. By day, Murdock becomes a successful lawyer, using his different perspective to craft well-executed arguments. And by night he uses his senses to expertly fight armed foes with only his bare hands, detecting even the faintest motions and staying one step ahead of his enemies who rely so heavily on their sight. He even uses his abilities to somehow pick out the most attractive woman in a room, much to his friend and law partner Froggy’s chagrin.
This brings me to another consideration: is Daredevil actually a superhero or just a kid who grew up with high expectations? Is he the penultimate example of blindness as merely a social construction? In some ways, I think he is. And this is what draws me to Daredevil in a way that other superheroes do not: he could, perhaps, exist in real life.
Watching Daredevil comforts me because he demonstrates that even amongst darkness, even when the world is a blur, there can be light. I think of my deteriorating eyesight, and the possibilities of losing visual acuity. I think of mortality, and misfortune, and the maturation of a body beyond control. All these things are uneasy, and difficult, and disorienting. And yet when I watch Murdock fight evil by day and by night, sharper than 20/20 vision, I take some solace in the unknown.
When I think of Daniel Kish, riding bikes and hiking, using his own type of sonar to guide him, I’m reminded that superheroes can exist in real life, and perhaps that is the ultimate appeal: to spawn and cultivate a belief in our own strength.
Shoshana Seidman is thankful for magical realism, cookies every day, solace and solitude, the statute of limitations, the Muppets, blistering heat, wounded writings, and regeneration. She has a BA in Literature and Writing from UC San Diego, and is a regular contributor to magazines such as The Culture Trip and Entropy.
How To Become Batman
NPR: Invisibilia – January 23, 2015
With Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller
“Can other people’s expectations of you alter what you can do physically? Invisibilia looks into something that sounds impossible: if people’s expectations can change whether a blind man can see.”
DISCOVERING THE SUBTLETIES IN HUMAN ECHOLOCATION
There are fascinating updated results from the study that WAFTB President and Lead Visioneer Daniel Kish has been co-authoring with Dr. Lore Thaler and others via Durham University in Great Britain. They may not be that surprising to Daniel and other blind people that we’ve taught our FlashSonar specialized form of echolocation to.
Daniel and some of our Instructor Visioneers have been working with Dr. Thaler on echolocation studies for a number of years, including her originating work as part of the team under the guidance of Distinguished Professor Melvyn A. Goodale at Western University in Canada.
The results of their latest work have been published in the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences. The Royal Society is a fellowship of many of the world’s most eminent scientists and is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.
Quoting from the Abstract of the latest study results, “In bats it has been shown that they adjust their emissions to situational demands. Here we report similar findings for human echolocation. We asked eight blind expert echolocators to detect reflectors positioned at various azimuth angles.
Our results are, to our knowledge, the first to show that human echolocation experts adjust their emissions to improve sensory sampling. An implication from our findings is that human echolocators accumulate information from multiple samples.”
You can read more detail from the abstract on its page at the Royal Society Website.
The research is providing further validation of the pioneering work Daniel Kish has been doing for decades in teaching his specialized form of echolocation – FlashSonar™ – to blind people of all ages all around the world.
VISIONEERS: MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE DURHAM STUDY
BBC NEWS: Science & Environment
A study has revealed secrets that help some blind people navigate their world by “seeing with sound”.
People who use “echolocation” employ it in a very similar way to bats – producing clicks that bounce off objects and “sonify” them into a picture of the surroundings.
A study of experts in the technique has revealed how louder clicks allow “echolocators” to see behind them. The insights are published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B.
Read more at: BBC NEWS: Science and Environment
Most people who are born blind are highly sensitive to the acoustics of their environment – using the echoes that bounce of objects, walls and buildings to navigate and avoid collisions.
However, in recent years there has been a growing awareness of the ability of some blind individuals to use mouth clicks to actively echolocate.
Lore Thaler, who led the work at Durham University, said: “From a scientific perspective, it’s firmly established that people can do this.”
Read more at TheGuardian.com
Specifically, the researchers wanted to find out how echolocators adjust their clicks in response to variations in their surroundings to create complex “mental maps”.
To this end, they enlisted eight blind expert echolocators to have their abilities put to the test.
“Just from walking around with people who echolocate, I know anecdotally that this is a very flexible behaviour – so sometimes they are soft, sometimes louder.”, said Dr Thaler.
Read more at Independent.co.uk
LONDON, March 1 (Xinhua) — A study of Durham University in Britain has found the skill of echolocation can help blind people navigate by “seeing with sound” just like bats.
The insights were published in the British Royal Society journal Proceedings B. They confirmed that people can identify objects with a high rate of accuracy by listening to echoes of mouth clicks.
“Everyone’s clicks are different,” explained Daniel Kish, a co-author on this study.
Read more at: XINZHUANET.com | www.news.cn
A blind woman stands facing the front of the room. Directly behind her, about three feet away is a pole with a wooden disc about the size of a coffee saucer.
The woman doesn’t know it’s there. She begins making clicking sounds with her mouth, modulating the volume and then stopping after about four seconds.
“Yes,” she says. Using only her mouth clicks, she has correctly determined the presence of the disc.
Read more at: Seeker.com
Human echolocation reached the world stage in 2015, after Daniel Kish, an expert in human echolocation who has been blind since he was an infant, discussed the technique in a TED talk that went viral (it has over 1.2 million views).
A new paper, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, builds on Kish’s talk, providing evidence that he isn’t alone in his capabilities.
Kish is one of five co-authors with Dr. Lore Thaler and it’s a game-changer for people who are blind.
Read more at Inverse.com
VISIONEERS: MEDIA COVERAGE OF PREVIOUS RESEARCH
ASSIGNMENT DURHAM: STUDY RESULTS
‘Seeing with Sound’ Study Chronicles the Science of Human Echolocation’
World Access For The Blind has been proud to be a research partner with Durham University in the U.K. as one of the many Academic Research programs we participate in with Dr. Lore Thaler. Read more at our Facebook Page.
“SEEING WTH SOUND” STUDY ARTICLE
WAFTB Editor’s Note: The article mentions that we can familiarize ourselves with and sketch an unfamiliar room, but fails to mention more complex outdoor environments where we can do the same. ‘This Is How Some Blind People Are Able To Echolocate Like Bats’ By Clare Wilson.
Read more at our Facebook Page.
National Geographic looks at the science of Echolocation in the following episode of their series Brain Games from 2011.
VISIONEERS: MORE VIDEOS ON THE SCIENCE BEHIND ECHOLOCATION
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