In a new research, scientists have shown that human beings can develop echolocation, the system of acoustic signals used by dolphins and bats to explore their surroundings. The research was conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Alcala de Henares (UAH) in Spain.
“In certain circumstances, we humans could rival bats in our echolocation or biosonar capacity”, said Juan Antonio Martínez, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Superior Polytechnic School of the UAH.
The team led by this scientist has started a series of tests, the first of their kind in the world, to make use of human beings’ under-exploited echolocation skills.
In the first study, the team analyses the physical properties of various sounds, and proposes the most effective of these for use in echolocation.
“The almost ideal sound is the palate click, a click made by placing the tip of the tongue on the palate, just behind the teeth, and moving it quickly backwards, although it is often done downwards, which is wrong,” Martinez explained.
According to the researcher, palate clicks “are very similar to the sounds made by dolphins, although on a different scale, as these animals have specially-adapted organs and can produce 200 clicks per second, while we can only produce three or four”.
By using echolocation, “which is three-dimensional, and makes it possible to ‘see’ through materials that are opaque to visible radiation,” it is possible to measure the distance of an object based on the time that elapses between the emission of a sound wave and an echo being received of this wave as it is reflected from the object.
In order to learn how to emit, receive and interpret sounds, the scientists are developing a method that uses a series of protocols.
This first step is for the individual to know how to make and identify his or her own sounds (they are different for each person), and later to know how to use them to distinguish between objects according to their geometrical properties.
The next level is to learn how to master the “palate clicks”.
According to Martinez, his team is now working to help deaf and blind people to use this method in the future, because echoes are not only perceived by their ear, but also through vibrations in the tongue and bones.
A better understanding of the mental mechanisms used in echolocation could also help to design new medical imaging technologies or scanners, which make use of the great penetration capacity of clicks.