Brian: “It’s a high pressure stakes game here…[laughing]”
You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation…
…and why I’m walking around blindfolded making weird noises.
Hey smart people, Joe here. So recently, I got to try something that made me feel like
I basically had superpowers.
And you can do it too, at home.
But before we get there - you need to meet my new friend, Molly Burke.
Joe: So, I met you a couple of months ago and immediately became fascinated with this
Molly: He’s my guide dog, Gallop!
So when I was four-years - old, I was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called retinitis
pigmentosa, slowly over time, I went blind.
I lost the majority of my vision when I was 14, which was in 2008.
Despite the fact that I still look 14 I am now 25, and I’m a blind YouTuber now.
Joe: You navigate the world in a really special way that totally blew my mind when we met.
Tell us about it.
Molly: When I was seven-years-old, I started taking O&M, or orientation and mobility training.
That included passive echolocation.
I learned how to pay attention to the sounds that exist already.
We live in a really loud world, I mean, listen to this.
We don’t usually notice every sound because most of our brains are constantly tuning out
what’s not important - there’s so much noise out there, we have to be able to filter
that information so it doesn’t sound like a jumbled mess.
But imagine being able to pick out any one sound, and use only that sound to navigate
any environment, even one you’ve never been in before.
As a sighted person, this seems impossible, and honestly like a good way to hurt yourself.
But with the help of a teacher in her O&M program, Molly learned how to do it.
Molly: So the way she would train me, is she would blindfold me, she would put me on the
sidewalk (with my cane, of course) and I would walk down the sidewalk and she would have
me count trees.
Molly: So the best way I can kind of explain it it is there’s sound, and then there’s
a lack of sound.
But really, a lack of sound still makes noise.
Molly: We call them sound shadows.
Am I right?
It’s like there’s a whole world that sighted people aren’t aware of.
And that got me wondering, can anyone learn echolocation?
Well, we’re about to put my dumb ears to the test.
Echolocation is used by tons of different animals, from whales to bats, to birds – even
cute widdle shrews can do it.
The species that are the best at it use active echolocation - the same way that sonar works
Instead of just listening, they first send out a sound, like a click.
Those sound waves sweep through the environment, and if they hit something, they bounce back.
By reading these echoes, the brain can actually form a mental map.
Like Marvel’s Daredevil.
I prefer the real daredevil.
I said the real daredevil.
The time between when the sound is made, and when it bounces back helps the brain calculate
things like distance, and the “quality” of the sound bouncing back can even carry
information like an object’s texture or hardness.
So I've always wanted to learn active echolocation, but I've only been trained
in passive echolocation.
Funny you should mention that Molly!
Because we have a surprise for her.
Joe: I told you I had a surprise for you…
Joe: I have a guest here with us.
I have Brian Bushway walking in with me
Brian: Hello Molly!
Brian works with a nonprofit called visioneers.
And he’s a master echolator.
Brian uses active echolocation like all those other animals we mentioned.
He teaches it too.
And he assured me, that - with some practice - anyone who can hear, can do this.
Brian: Active echolocation is just passive echolocation – what you’ve already been
using – at a more enhanced level.
So whether we send the brain patterns of light, which is vision, or patterns of sound, the
brain will still construct an image.
Speaking of the brain - there’s an old idea, one that a lot of people still believe, that
when you get to some age your brain freezes and it’s always going to be wired like that
But what we’re learning is that the brain is a lot more flexible and adaptable than
we thought......we call this ability to adapt and rewire “neuroplasticity.”
What does it mean for a brain to be plastic - it’s almost like rearranging, not physically,
but parts of the brain can be reassigned to handle new things or tasks.
Scientists have found that blind people are almost always a little better at echolocating
than sighted people.
Their brains had to develop new ways to handle sensory information.
That’s exactly what happened to Molly.
Brian: If you’re already able to walk down the sidewalk and passively detect trees, that
means your hearing is super astute.
That’s great…. so now when we teach you this active signal, that’s going to bring
more clarity to your image.
Brian: So the visual analogy is this, we have active echolocation, which we teach with a
click ...”click,” “click”
Molly: Wow that doesn’t sound like a tongue click!
Joe: That’s such a good tongue click!
Brian: What gives you control over your environment with the active click – it allows you to,
almost like a screen refresher, so if you’re running down the street, or riding your bike
down the street, you can click, and you can actually hear the back of parked cars or curbs.
So, in a quiet, residential neighborhood we can ride a bike and we actively click.
Joe: You’re riding a bike, as a blind person, which I could bet you -
Molly: Not a tandem bike?
Brian: Not a tandem bike
Molly: I had to stop riding bikes when I was eight, because I rode into a pole.
And ever since then I’ve had to use a tandem bike.
And that was frustrating for me, and that’s always one of the things, when people ask
me what I miss about being sighted, I always say the things that I miss the most are the
things give you freedom.
And I have seen blind people using active echolocation where they’re skateboarding
on their own, or playing basketball on their own, or riding a bike on their own.
And that’s what I would love to do.
Joe: Well, speaking of learning echolocation, I’m hoping Brian can take us through a few
things, so we can show people what this education looks like, what these tecniques looks like,
and hopefully through my dumb sighted head, show that anyone can do this.
Brian: So when we talk about clicking, there’s actually two sounds.
There’s the click that’s made in our mouth, and there’s the echo that’s reflected
off of everything in this room.
Brian: You want a good click to be clear, clean, and sharp, and then you ignore it,
because you’re really paying attention to –
Molly: what the feedback is?
Getting a good tongue click is hard.
Clicking is what people like Brian use, but really, you can navigate your environment
with almost any sound you make.
For the first demonstration, I’m going to use a shhhh sound.
I’m going to put my hands up in a flat area, and
make that shhhh sound, and you’ll hear the sound change as it comes in front of me.
Brian: SHhhhh demo
Should we try it?
Brian: Sure, try it!
Brian: So what we’ve just understood here in a matter of seconds, is that you just understood
when something was in front of you, vs. when something was not.
AND you could even hear when another person did this.
Once we had some practice with shhhh-ing, we learned how to tell different echoes apart.
Brian: Just, you know - by a hunch, what’s your hypothesis, which do you think will be
easier to hear, the hollow bowl or the flat panel?
Joe: The hollow bowl, I think, is going to have a pretty distinct sound.
Hollow sounds, like what comes out of the bowl are easy to pick out, because the edges
work like a funnel, sending the sound back towards you.
Listen to the difference.
Brian: These are the things we want to note because this hollow bowl is will represent
entry ways, doorways.
Most doors are placed in alcoves, and alcoves create a hollow sound, very similar to a bowl.
And when you understand how to listen and recognize that, you know where to aim a guide
dog or a cane.
Brian: When I say go, I want you to click and recognize where you hear your hollow space,
on the right or on the left.
Joe: Ok left?
Now keep clicking, and aim and try to reach you hand and touch it.
Joe: Oh no!
Brian: Boom, that’s amazing for the first time though.
That’s directive reaching, that’s important, it’s part of how we teach ourselves.
Brian: Molly’s turn!
Molly: Oh goodness.
Joe: Ok I’m going to take my blindfold off so I can experience this
Molly: So, I’m intrigued to try the clicking, because my instinct is so much to not click
because I’m so used to listening to the natural.
Watching what Molly could do, even without clicking was… woah.
She told me things about the room that I would never imagine someone who couldn’t see would
know about, just by the sound it makes.
I feel like there stuff behind us, like it's very heavy back there
whereas it's like very open in front and to the left, it's far more open at least than behind us and to the right
Use that to your advantage.
Joe did not have that kind of sophistication or understanding already.
Your brain is already adapted.
Molly: It’s to my right, but a little in front of me.
Brian: Ok, so I want you to click, and image where it is, and reach out and touch it.
I did it exactly!
Brian: graduating to the next level!
Brian: Here we go!
So already in a matter of minutes and just a couple exercises, you’re already noticing
When something is there, and when it isn’t.
Molly: And I do notice, the time I didn’t click and grab, I grabbed your hand.
But the time I did click, I punched the middle.
Brian: You were more precise.
Molly: So, you’re right!
It was, it was more precise.
I’m already starting to see the difference between just passively echolocation, and actively
trying to do it.
Brian describes seeing with soundwaves as a kind of fuzzy geometry - and one place you
can really see that fuzzy geometry, is in a corner.
Brian: Corners have such a unique quality, because the sound triangulates inside a corner.
Brian: Molly go ahead and try the shh thing first, because anytime you have someone sighted
people, to explain this, the shh will help everyone.
Oh my god, it’s so weird, it’s like I have a full image of like the half tunnel
Brian: Oh yeah!
It totally takes the shape, it’s such a cool phenomenon.
Brian: And the other thing we’re going to talk about is edge detection.
And what we’re going to do is look at what does it sound like to actually face a wall,
vs. the open space of the open door.
And we’re really listening to the threshold of the wall, and the open space.
You’ll hear the external edge of the door frame.
It’s right there, right in front of my nose.
Joe: It’s almost like the sound goes mute, in a way.
Studies have shown that, especially for novice echolocators (like me), moving the head around
helps us understand the shape of the space around them.
One of the things I realized as we were practicing is how tiring this was, my brain felt exhausted
as if I’d been studying for three hours.
It’s a workout for your brain.
Brian: one of the great things we accomplished is activating everyone’s perceptual system,
getting the brain just curious about more information.
It’s easy to imagine echolocation as just listening, but it’s more than that.
The human brain wants sensory information, and it’s constantly trying to construct
a map of our environment, whether or not we’re aware of it.
The difference is which type of input people give their brains.
When scientists put blind echolocators into MRI machines, and played recorded echoes back
to them, the regions of the brain associated with vision were activated – even though
they weren’t getting any visual input.
The parts of the brain that handle motion and movement were turned on during active
echolocation, even if the person wasn’t moving at all.
The weird part is that we don’t really understand exactly how brains rewire like this, but it’s
another sign of how adaptable the brain is.
Molly: I’m curious how this would benefit me in very crowded environments.
When it’s very very crowded, guide dogs can’t do their thing, canes can’t really
do their thing, because it’s like hitting a thing, hitting a thing.
In really, really crowded environments most blind people end up going sighted-guide.
Every blind person needs to know about this, every blind person needs to be able to have
access to this.
People like Brian and the rest of the visioneers team are giving not just blind people, but
all of us, a new way to experience the world.
Studies are showing us that our abilities go beyond what we’d expect.
This experience changed the way I think about my own brain, and about my own ideas of what
it’s like to be blind.
Joe: I’ve gone through my life thinking….
my perception of blindness, is that something is missing.
And this has shown me that I have been missing, and tuning out this other sensory experience
that is incredibly rich, and that can show me different things about my environment that
I was just ignoring
and that’s the biggest thing I’ll take away from this, it's not something leaving, it's gaining something new
Brian: I’ve also been asked that question, you know, “Brian, if you could see again,
what would that be like?
Would you want to?”
But the experiences that I’ve learned from the quote unquote “vision loss” has actually
taught me so much more about life and our human capacity.
I’ve had the great fortune of actually conquering one of man’s greatest fears: the fear of
The fact that we could all image acoustically really challenges that whole notion.
And so, many times sighted people say oh if you can’t see the flashing lights that hypnotize,
it’s a loss.
And I say you, SIGHTED people, have not developed your brain to actually understand the world
and beauty of acoustic images.
Molly: So they’re also missing out on something.
That kind of levels the playing field, in a way.
Joe: Brian, thank you so much for letting us experience this, my brain is tired in the
best way possible.
Molly, thank you so much for experiencing this with us.
Molly: This was amazing!
Joe: Guys, stay curious, and I’m going to keep pacticing.
If you want to learn more… head on over to Molly’s channel, I helped her dig into
the science of her particular kind of blindness, which was super interesting and I learned
so much talking to her.
Joe: and we’ve already figured out that I’m going to be the first to die in the