Skip to main content
Michigan State UniversityCognitive Science Program

"The Neural Correlates of Echolocation in the Blind"

Dr. Melvyn Goodale, The University of Western Ontario

Monday, February 6th at 5:30 p.m., 118 Psychology

Watch the talk here!

"I can hear a building over there"

Everybody has heard about echolocation in bats and dolphins. These creatures emit bursts of sounds and listen to the echoes that bounce back to detect objects in their environment. What is less well known is that people can echolocate, too. In fact, there are blind people who have learned to make clicks with their mouth and tongue – and to use to use the returning echoes from those clicks to sense their surroundings. Some of these people are so adept at echolocation that they can use this skill to go mountain biking, play basketball, or navigate unknown environments. In this talk, we will learn about several of these echolocators – some of whom train other blind people to use this amazing skill.

Using fMRI we showed that blind echolocation experts use what is normally the ‘visual’ part of their brain to process the clicks and echoes. We first made recordings of the clicks and their very faint echoes using miniature microphones inserted in the ears of the blind echolocators as they identified different objects. We then played the recorded sounds back to the echolocators in the scanner. Remarkably, when the echolocation recordings were played back to the blind experts, not only did they perceive the objects based on the distinctive echoes, but they also showed activity in the calcarine cortex, a brain area corresponding to primary visual cortex in sighted people. This activation was particularly striking in the blind echolocator who had lost his vision early in life. Interestingly, auditory cortical areas were no more activated by sound recordings of outdoor scenes containing echoes than they were by sound recordings of outdoor scenes with the echoes removeds – even though the ‘visual’ brain areas were remarkably sensitive to the faint echoes. When the same experiment was carried out with sighted people who could not echolocate, these individuals could not make sense of the clicks and echoes, and neither did their brains show any echo-related activity. This study raises many questions about neuroplasticity and sensory substitution. But even at this point, it is clear that echolocation enables blind people to do things that are otherwise thought to be impossible without vision and in this way it can provide blind and vision impaired people with a high degree of independence in their daily lives.


Suggested Readings

Teng, S. and Whitney, D. (2011). The acuity of echolocation: Spatial resolution in the sighted compared to expert performance. J Vis Impair Blind, 105(1). [.pdf]

Thaler, L., Arnott, S., and Goodale, M. (2011). Neural Correlates of Natural Human Echolocation in Early and Late Blind Echolocation Experts. PLoS ONE, 6(5). [.pdf]

MSU CogSci in the News and Announcements

09.01.2020
ATTENTION: Because of the move to remote format for MSU classes and events during the Fall 2020 semester, cognitive science events will take place online until further notice. Please see specific event pages for more details on remote attending.

03.11.2020
Due to the novel coronavirus, all cognitive science events will be cancelled or postponed until further notice. We will release more information on new dates for postponed events as they are rescheduled. For official updates and information on MSU's response to the coronavirus, visit https://msu.edu/coronavirus/latest-updates

04.02.2019
Graduate student Stella (Cheng) Qian , member of the Brascamp lab for Visual Neuroscience, is the recipient of an Elsevier/Vision Research Travel Award for the 2019 Meeting of the Vision Sciences Society. [link]

04.01.2019
Prof. Aline Godfroid was the recipient of the 2019 TESOL Award for Distinguished Research. The award was granted by the TESOL organization for her study "Incidental vocabulary learning in a natural reading context: An eye-tracking study", which was published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. The article was selected by the organization as the best TESOL-related, empirical research article appearing in 2018. [link]

04.01.2019
Graduate student Kaylin Smith, member of the Phonetics and Phonology group at MSU, is the recipient of an International Phonetic Association Student Award for the 2019 International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, which takes place August 5-9th in Melbourne, Australia.

12.15.2018
Prof. Jan Brascamp , as instructor of the Cognitive Psychology honors course, had an exhibition titled The Art of Psychology of Perception on display at the MSU Broad Art Lab. This was a collaboration between the Psychology department and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. The exhibition was active from December 15th, 2018 until April 7, 2019. Rather than educating psychology students from utilizing a traditional art history overview, the students assessed the works on display using their own disciplinary background and perspective. [link]

8.18.2017
Prof. Arun Ross was one of four panelists in a BBC Newshour Extra program titled Facing the Future, moderated by journalist Owen Bennet Jones. The panel discussed advancements made from automated face recognition and also personal privacy and biometrics. [link]

7.31.2017
Prof. William Hartmann was awarded the 2017 Acoustical Society of America (ASA) Gold Medal for his contributions to the field of acoustics. His research has dealt with the perceptual analysis of sounds from varying sources, processing pitch, how humans localize sounds in space, and more. [link]

6.22.2017
Profs. Devin McAuley and Natalie Phillips received an NSF Grant, The Role of Narrative in Music Perception, to study the factors which shape narrative listening to music and the relationship between narrative listening and other aspects of musical perception. [link]

4.11.2017
Prof. Arun Ross and his colleague from NYU have had their research on the security of mobile fingerprint scanning featured in The New York Times, MSU Today, Popular Science, Homeland Security News Wire, and Science 360 News.

3.23.2017
Professors Arun Ross, Xiaoming Liu, and Anil Jain received a 4-year grant from IARPA to conduct research on Presentation Attack Detection for fingerprint, face and iris biometric systems. [link]

2.28.2017
CSE student Thomas Swearingen and his adviser Prof. Arun Ross won the runner up award for best paper at ISBA 2017. [link]

1.23.2017
Research on laptop use and classroom learning by Prof. Susan Ravizza, Mitchell Uitvlugt, and Prof. Kim Fenn was featured in US News, BYU Radio, The Conversation, and numerous higher education journals [1, 2, 3, 4].

1.17.2017
Prof. Cristina Schmitt received an NSF Grant, Effects of Variation and Variability in the Acquisition of Two Dialects of Spanish, to study first language acquisition of Spanish in the context of variability caused by contact between two very different varieties of Spanish: Paraguayan Spanish, which is heavily influenced by Guaraní (an indigenous language), and Rioplatense Spanish (spoken in Buenos Aires). [link]

1.1.2017
Prof. Aline Godfroid received a Language Learning Early Career Research Grant for her validation project on "Measuring implicit and explicit L2 knowledge: Synthesizing 12 years of research."

11.1.2016
Prof. Mark Becker has published five papers so far this year in Perception,Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance,Packaging Technology and Science,Visual Cognition, and Applied Ergonomics.

10.3.2016
Sunpreet Arora and Anil Jain were part of a team that won Best Paper at BioSig 2016 for their paper titled "3D Whole Hand Targets: Evaluating Slap and Contactless Fingerprint Readers".

10.3.2016
Dr. Anil Jain was part of a team that won Best Poster at BioSig 2016 for a poster titled "Advances in Capturing Child Fingerprints: A High Resolution CMOS Image Sensor with SLDR Method".

9.27.2016
Dr. Anil Jain and Dr. Arun Ross were awarded a three-year NSF grant under the Secure & Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) program for their proposal entitled "Imparting Privacy to Biometric Data in Cyberspace".

9.25.2016
Dr. Arun Ross (with Dr. Nasir Memon, NYU) was awarded a three-year NSF grant for their project entitled "The Master Print: Investigating and Addressing Vulnerabilities in Fingerprint-based Authentication Systems".

8.8.16
Science writer Carl Sherman's story on stuttering for the Dana Foundation website, titled Seeking Clues to Stuttering Deep Within the Brain, featured research by Prof. Devin McAuley.

Summer 2016
Dr. Mark Becker was invited by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to present his work investigating individual differences in cognition and personality that predict rare target detection at their Workshop on Developing Personnel Selection Tools for Forensic Scientists.

Summer 2016
Prof. Mark Reimers and colleague Bruce McNaughton received an NSF grant to study the dynamics of hippocampal-cortical communication during memory formation and recall.

Summer 2016
Prof. Susan Ravizza became a senior editor for the journal Brain Research.

Summer 2016
Prof. Mark Reimers received a Templeton Foundation grant to study the molecular coherence of genetic variants related to behavioral traits, including IQ.

For older news, check out our news archive here.