Echolocation is a technique used in animals like bats, whales and dolphins. These animals make sounds and listen to echos bounce off surrounding objects to navigate. When I was snorkeling in Hawaii, I was able to hear whales in the distance which was incredible. We also went whale watching and I was able to witness echolocation first hand. However, none of this was quite as amazing as the story of Ben Underwood, a blind 16 year old boy who is the first human capable of harnessing echolocation.
At age two, Ben's mother noticed a strange light in his pupil that turned white in 3 days. Retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer had developed in his eyes. His infant cancer was very rare, and affects only 6 out of every million children. This cancer grows rapidly so doctors began chemo and radiation treatment; if the cancer reached his optic nerve he would die. After ten months, the cancer was still present. His mother had to make a choice, and his eyes were removed.
A year after the surgery, Ben and his mother were driving with the windows down when he said, "Mom, do you see that building?". We see objects because light reflects off of them. Ben sees them because sound reflects, and in this case because the noises the car made were reflected. After this experience, Ben was able to repeat this process of Echolocation by making clicking noises with his tongue. Growing up, he learned to play video games, rollerblade and ride his bike. In some situations, Ben was even more aware of his surroundings than his friends. Playing in the streets, he could hear cars from blocks away while other children noticed them only after they turned into the block.
The human ear is an amazing tool. The outer ear funnels sounds into the eardrum, then into the ossicles containing the smallest bones in the body, the hammer, stirrup and anvil. The cochlea is filled with fluid and converts sounds into neutral activity. The hair cells contain cilia and go into the cochlea. The auditory nerve picks up the sounds of the excited hair cells, travels through the thalamus and then the brain interprets sound. It is incredible that the 3 smallest bones in our body are part of such an intricate process, and through this process Ben was able to see again. Ben Underwood died due to complications with his cancer on January 19th, 2009. He was the only human capable of echolocation at the time, but he has influenced many others. Daniel Kish, another blind man, has learned to see with his ears too. He is now teaching other visually impaired children.