Understanding the factors that determine if a person can successfully learn a novel sensory skill is essential for understanding how the brain adapts to change, and for providing rehabilitative support for people with sensory loss. We report a training study investigating the effects of blindness and age on the learning of a complex auditory skill: click-based echolocation. Blind and sighted participants of various ages (21–79 yrs; median blind: 45 yrs; median sighted: 26 yrs) trained in 20 sessions over the course of 10 weeks in various practical and virtual navigation tasks. Blind participants also took part in a 3-month follow up survey assessing the effects of the training on their daily life. We found that both sighted and blind people improved considerably on all measures, and in some cases performed comparatively to expert echolocators at the end of training. Somewhat surprisingly, sighted people performed better than those who were blind in some cases, although our analyses suggest that this might be better explained by the younger age (or superior binaural hearing) of the sighted group. Importantly, however, neither age nor blindness was a limiting factor in participants’ rate of learning (i.e. their difference in performance from the first to the final session) or in their ability to apply their echolocation skills to novel, untrained tasks. Furthermore, in the follow up survey, all participants who were blind reported improved mobility, and 83% reported better independence and wellbeing. Overall, our results suggest that the ability to learn click-based echolocation is not strongly limited by age or level of vision. This has positive implications for the rehabilitation of people with vision loss or in the early stages of progressive vision loss.
Norman, L. J., Dodsworth, C., Foresteire, D., & Thaler, L. (2021). Human click-based echolocation: Effects of blindness and age, and real-life implications in a 10-week training program. PLoS ONE, 16(6), Article e0252330. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252330