National Geographic : 2013 Jul
Bat Man What daniel kish does, astonishingly, elegantly, makes you wonder how much untapped potential lies within the human body. Kish was born with retinal cancer, and to save his life, both eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. He soon started making a clicking noise with his tongue. It seemed to help him get around. Now 47, he navigates primarily using echolocation. Yes, like a bat. He’s so good, he can ride a bicycle in traffic. His group, World Access for the Blind, teaches others the art of the click. how does human echolocation work? Sound waves are produced by every tongue click. These waves bounce off surfaces all around and return to my ears as faint echoes. My brain processes the echoes into dynamic images. It’s like having a conversation with the environment. What do you see in your mind’s eye as you click? Each click is like a dim camera flash. I construct a three-dimensional image of my surroundings for hundreds of feet in every direction. Up close, I can detect a pole an inch thick. At 15 feet, I recognize cars and bushes. Houses come into focus at 150 feet. But you still use a long white cane. I have difficulty detecting small items at low level or places where the ground drops off. What is it like riding a bike using echolocation? It’s thrilling but requires very focused and sustained concentration on the acoustics of the environment. I click as much as twice per second, way more than I usually do. is it dangerous to explore the world this way? Much of the world lives in fear of threats to life and limb that are largely imagined. Despite my insatiable habit of climbing anything and everything, I never broke a bone as a kid. how challenging is it to teach other blind people echolocation? World Access has taught nearly a thousand blind students in over 30 countries. Many students are surprised how quickly results come. I believe echolocation capacity is latent within us—early man may have used it when artificial lighting was nonexistent. The neural hardware seems to be there; I’ve developed ways to activate it. Vision isn’t in the eyes; it’s in the mind. Our students say they’ve discovered a freedom they never imagined. THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION | RISK TAKER By Michael Finkel Photograph by Marco Grob Watch Marco Grob’s video interview with Daniel Kish on our digital editions.