Bat Whisperer (Part 2)

by Translation Guy on October 18, 2010

In an earlier post, we learned that bats always know where they are thanks to their powers of echolocation. Scientists have discovered that those same sonar-like squeaks and careful listening that bats use to paint a mental portrait of their surroundings also come in handy for communicating with fellow bats―and scientists are starting to listen in on some amazing bat dialog. So flitting around in the dark may have given bats the Darwinian alphabet blocks required for language. Notice I said “may have,” since the word is still out on bat syntax, but I can demonstrate to you for sure that the echolocation+language connection works in the other direction for humans just like you and me.

Next time you are caught out of the house in the rain, spread the bat-like wings of your umbrella, close your eyes and listen. Listen long and hard and you will begin to feel the world take shape around you in the sounds of the falling rain. The shapes of things will take a form in your mind’s eye, as your ears paint for you a 3-D portrait of your environment (two ears required for this stereoscopic effect). You will be able to hear the texture of surfaces as the rain hits leaves, or sidewalk, or car, or asphalt roof. You’ll experience a world around you that passes right over the head of those who rely only on vision to see.

We sighted tourists can only have a cup of coffee in this world of echoes, but some of our blind brothers and sisters have taken their audio skills to levels beyond our sighted perceptions and into the realm of those bold bats flapping sightlessly in the darkness of the night.

James Holman, born in 1786, was the most prolific traveler in history, a blind man who taught himself the technique of echolocation to enable his adventures, “studying medicine in Edinburgh, fighting the slave trade in Africa, hunting rogue elephants in Ceylon, and surviving a frozen captivity in Siberia.” (The Tsar thought he was a spy). The world he saw was painted in the echoes of tapped cane or the hoof beats of a horse. His was the first recorded use of echolocation among humans.

Tapping and clopping are great for listening, but humans attempting echolocation have been hampered by their difficulty in getting to the high frequencies and shorter wavelengths necessary for a more detailed picture of the world. Ben Underwood, lost to us last year at the age of 16 due to the retinal cancer that had blinded him as a baby, turned to speech to find his way around. After his cancerous eyes were removed at age two, Ben discovered that, by rapidly clicking his tongue and listening for the echoes, he was able to play basketball, skateboard and roller-blade like any other hyperactive, sighted adolescent.  This you have to see to believe…

My own echolocational powers are basically limited to repeating back directions I get from kind strangers. But in Ben’s case, seeing was speaking, and for bats, seeing may be speaking. What a wonder is the world.

In memoriam: Ben Underwood 1992 -2009. “And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose.” (Acts 9:18)


  1. Tarzan says:

    I think it may be possible the chemo he received when he was just 2 years old may have been the reason he later developed new cancr. The young are damaged much more by chemo….. A very inspiring story … My sympathies to his family. Thank you TranslationGuy for posting this story.

  2. Billy says:

    I live in Sacramento and followed Ben’s story, to its conclusion in January. Thanks for this Ken.

  3. Alan Levin says:

    I feel I have experienced this in my Bigfoot research. I have had on two separate occasions experience Bigfoot emitting sounds. One time a Bigfoot was in the woods walking towards me where I was standing in the clearing as it came closer and closer the sound became faster and faster. I backed up and walked over to the person I didn’t know that was out with the group for the weekend, he was standing by the camp fire and I began to tell him what just happen to me and then what happens next is movement in woods and then we heard this sound it really frightened the person I was standing next to. Another time there was two of us members in a huge tent (three family tent) and we could hear outside the tent what sounded like Bigfoot’s others in a tent down from us just saw some around their tent and were frightened. Then I heard that same sound emitting from one and I got the impression it was seeing where we were in the tent and maybe how many of us. I thought of Bats, from your previous post Ken, and though other groups have talked about this sound these creatures make, I never heard them relate it to possible “echolocation”.

  4. Marsha Gold says:

    I went to You Tube and watched all 5 videos they had on Ben and several others. It’s pretty incredible. The authorities that worked with him, for a while, had him walking a curved path, which cracked me up, after watching him ride his bike and rollerblades. Later on he met a man by the name of Dan, who also had lost his vision early in life, and developed the technique of echo-location. He was able to work with Ben and finally show Ben the usefulness of the hated white cane after Ben almost fell into a hole by his relying solely on the echo-location. Ben also realized the potential of the cane and it’s added use as a tool, while hiking with Dan and others who were blind.

  5. The late Jeff Healey, Canadian guitarist, was also robbed of sight due to cancer in early childhood. In a radio retrospective on his achievements, he was described as using his own version of echo-locating. He would snap his fingers while walking around in an unfamiliar place. Probably some version of his has emerged in many people similarly deprived of sight. I think he was about forty when he died, after a full life of outstanding music, broadcasting, helping other musicians and songwriters get a career start, and so on. He’s still greatly missed.

  6. Aemit… That’s quite an interesting and thought provoking analysis. I was thinking that perhaps human echolocation is a new, evolutionary adaptation, further confirming the ability of Human Consciousness to override and manipulate “reality”. We the well-informed KNOW that the elitist, psychopathic, control-freak, etc., banksters obsessively strive to dumb us down and poison us, ultimately wishing to hold us back from our Divine potential…

  7. Cool. I’m glad he helped open up new tools and methods to be used by the blind. I’m sorry and sad that he died, too. His story is very remarkable and exciting, too. I’ve known other blind people in my life, but never anyone with his ability to echolocate. I’ve always known and respected that blind people can do anything, so I have great respect for the white cane and seeing eye dogs and other tools that actually mean freedom and independence for blind people.

  8. Captain says:

    We have a daughter who is blind and also developed her own echo location at around 2 yrs. old, thanks to his documentary we got Daniel to come and further develop her technique, it is amazing what the human mind is capable of. It was very sad to find out of Ben’s passing. He was a true ambassador to show the world how there is no limits. Daniel has an organization called World Access for the Blind, and instructors who are just as amazing. I’m glad to see Ben’s story on here today!

  9. Princess says:

    Go to and see the amazing things blind people are doing, just like Ben. He opened the road for this method to be known, but it has been used and developed by many blind. Check it out.

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