Study confirms echolocation acts as ‘sixth’ sense for blind people

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A study by neuroscientists at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute has confirmed that human echolocation operates as a viable ‘sense’, working in tandem with other senses to deliver information to people with visual impairment.

Echolocation is used by some blind people to find their way around, either snapping their fingers or clicking their tongue to bounce sound waves off objects. It is often associated with bats, which use it when flying. The research team investigated how much echolocation in humans has in common with the way in which sighted people use their vision.

They demonstrated that echolocators experience a ‘size-weight illusion’ when they use their echolocation to get a sense of how big objects are, in the same way as sighted people do when using their normal vision. The size-weight illusion is what you experience when a small box containing a kilogram of lead feels like it weighs more than a big box containing a kilogram of feathers.

Melvyn Goodale, Director of the Brain and Mind Institute, said: ‘This new study shows that echolocation is not just a functional tool to help visually impaired individuals navigate their environment, but actually has the potential to be a complete sensory replacement for vision.’

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