The role of head movements in the discrimination of 2-D shape by blind echolocation experts Academic Article uri icon


  • Similar to certain bats and dolphins, some blind humans can use sound echoes to perceive their silent surroundings. By producing an auditory signal (e.g., a tongue click) and listening to the returning echoes, these individuals can obtain information about their environment, such as the size, distance, and density of objects. Past research has also hinted at the possibility that blind individuals may be able to use echolocation to gather information about 2-D surface shape, with definite results pending. Thus, here we investigated people's ability to use echolocation to identify the 2-D shape (contour) of objects. We also investigated the role played by head movements--that is, exploratory movements of the head while echolocating--because anecdotal evidence suggests that head movements might be beneficial for shape identification. To this end, we compared the performance of six expert echolocators to that of ten blind nonecholocators and ten blindfolded sighted controls in a shape identification task, with and without head movements. We found that the expert echolocators could use echoes to determine the shapes of the objects with exceptional accuracy when they were allowed to make head movements, but that their performance dropped to chance level when they had to remain still. Neither blind nor blindfolded sighted controls performed above chance, regardless of head movements. Our results show not only that experts can use echolocation to successfully identify 2-D shape, but also that head movements made while echolocating are necessary for the correct identification of 2-D shape.

publication date

  • 2014