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)