Human echolocation: Using tongue-clicks to navigate the world


Daniel Kish has been blind since he was a baby but that hasn’t stopped him living an incredibly active life that includes hiking and mountain-biking. To do this, he has perfected a form of human echolocation, using reflected sound waves to build a mental picture of his surroundings.

When Daniel Kish clicks his tongue, the world answers back.

Cars, trees, doorways, bollards on the pavement… all are identified and mapped in his brain using information gleaned from a series of sharp little taps of his tongue against the roof of his mouth, two or three times a second.

From an early age, the Californian developed a sonar technique which allowed him to navigate using echoes from repeated tongue-clicks. The skill has led to him being dubbed a “real-life Batman” – a description he welcomes.

“It is the same process bats use,” he says. “You send out a sound or a call and sound waves are physical waves – they bounce back from physical surfaces.

“So if a person is clicking and they’re listening to surfaces around them they do get an instantaneous sense of the positioning of these surfaces.”

The echoes from his clicks inform Kish about an object’s distance, size, texture and density. It’s enough for him to differentiate between, say, a metal fence and a wooden fence.

Written By: William Kremer
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  1. Remarkable. I mean, just awe inspiring. I just closed my eyes in a silent room and clicked my tongue over and over. I got no where.

  2. “The skill has led to him being dubbed a “real-life Batman””

    If I remember my comics rightly he’s more like Daredevil than Batman. I’ve seen blind people do this with electronic aids – amazingly being able to identify people, trees, pillar boxes, cars etc by their echo – but never imagined it might be possible without technological assistance.

  3. If my GPS started clicking out of the blue, I would probably end up driving off a cliff. Daniel Kish is a legend.

  4. Yup. Saw this chap recently. Amazing how the brain is able to adapt to new sensory forms.

  5. There’s nothing quite like this kind of courage in others to put things into perspective for yours truly.

    Beyond admirable – truly astounding.

    As my wife says “you’ve just got to get on with it.”

    It also reminds me of a Polynesian saying: Eat life, or life will eat you.

  6. I was inspired by Daniel Kish a few years back and have actually taken on the challenge of learning echolocation for myself. I’m not visually impaired but the implications of humans being able to us echolocation are profound and far-reaching. I discovered that it’s really not as hard as it seems like it should be. I’ve come up with certain exercises and methods of sensitizing one’s ears and mind to begin picking up on the subtleties involved in echolocation.

    In my opinion this is something all blind people should commit to learning because the independence and awareness it can offer is astounding. I would also encourage sighted people to learn the skill, simply to gain an understanding of how powerful and fascinating your own mind is, and to see the world through an entirely new and unique mode of perception.

  7. And I agree, he’s definitely more like Daredevil than Batman. That came about because Bats use sonar, however, Batman does not. Sorry Daredevil, you’re just not popular enough!

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