People use sensory, in particular visual, information to guide actions such as walking around obstacles, grasping or reaching. However, it is presently unclear how malleable the sensorimotor system is. The present study investigated this by measuring how click-based echolocation may be used to avoid obstacles while walking. We tested 7 blind echolocation experts, 14 sighted, and 10 blind echolocation beginners. For comparison, we also tested 10 sighted participants, who used vision. To maximize the relevance of our research for people with vision impairments, we also included a condition where the long cane was used and considered obstacles at different elevations. Motion capture and sound data were acquired simultaneously. We found that echolocation experts walked just as fast as sighted participants using vision, and faster than either sighted or blind echolocation beginners. Walking paths of echolocation experts indicated early and smooth adjustments, similar to those shown by sighted people using vision and different from later and more abrupt adjustments of beginners. Further, for all participants, the use of echolocation significantly decreased collision frequency with obstacles at head, but not ground level. Further analyses showed that participants who made clicks with higher spectral frequency content walked faster, and that for experts higher clicking rates were associated with faster walking. The results highlight that people can use novel sensory information (here, echolocation) to guide actions, demonstrating the action system’s ability to adapt to changes in sensory input. They also highlight that regular use of echolocation enhances sensory-motor coordination for walking in blind people.
Thaler, L., Zhang, X., Antoniou, M., Kish, D., & Cowie, D. (2020). The flexible Action System: Click-based Echolocation may replace certain visual Functionality for adaptive Walking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 46(1), 21-35. https://doi.org/10.1037/xhp0000697