Publisher: eScholarship, University of California
Types: Doctoral thesis
Subjects: Experimental psychology, Neurosciences, Cognitive psychology, Auditory perception, Blindness, Echolocation, Perception, Plasticity, Psychophysics
The use of active natural echolocation as a mobility aid for blind humans has received increased scientific and popular attention in recent years (Engber, 2006; Kreiser, 2006; NPR, 2011), in part due to a focus on several blind individuals who have developed remarkable expertise. However, perhaps surprisingly, the history of empirical human echolocation research is not much younger than the era of echolocation research (cf. Griffin, 1958). Nevertheless, compared to its bat and cetacean counterparts (Thomas et al., 2004), the field today remains in a state of comparative infancy. Until quite recently, nearly the entire body of human echolocation research has been behavioral in nature, with little insight into perceptual and neural mechanisms.Thus, the goal of this manuscript is to broadly integrate research findings in human echolocation across time, levels of analysis, and methodology. We will define human echolocation as it has been operationalized in research and practice, review behavioral goals served by echolocation, and identify putative auditory cues and neural mechanisms underpinning human echolocation. We examine some individual differences in echolocation performance, particularly involving blind compared to sighted persons. We present two studies in detail, addressing the spatial acuity of echolocation skills in sighted volunteers and blind experts. Throughout, we identify outstanding theoretical and applied questions that may form the basis for ongoing and future research. Taken together, we conclude that echolocation can serve behaviorally relevant perceptual goals; that spatial echolocation tasks such as size discrimination can be learned by sighted subjects, not just the blind; that the spatial resolution of echolocation can rival that of peripheral vision; that the variegated cues driving echolocation performance are processed at multiple levels of the auditory system; and that blindness likely plays an important role in shaping individual differences in echo processing.
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