Friday, May 21, 2010

Bats, echolocation and amazing people.

During my last years of high school and after I graduated from high school, I worked three jobs, one was at Washington Hospital, Washington, PA. My first job there was as a dish-washer, I had to clean food off plates that sick people had been eating off. Not a nice job. I remember one time my boss made me extemely mad. I was livid. I do not remember what for but I do remember I made some sort of rude gesture at him behind his back. When he asked me what I was doing I told him that I was "putting a curse on him so he would not be able to speak." Keep in mind these were the days when people really thought I was psychic. Project Alpha (see web site for info on Project Alpha) was already planned to take place at some time and Randi had asked me to pretend to be psychic. Well lo and behold, whether it was was due to his belief in my "powers",coincidence or the very unlikely fact I was psychic, he lost his voice for two weeks. This scared the beejesus out of everyone that worked with me, and to be honest, even scared me a little bit. I realized the power of words.

My second job at Washington Hospital was housekeeping. Usually you just stripped floors and put new wax on them or washed down the walls. The smoking rooms were the worse. Buckets of smelly, yellow water when you were done, just awful and certainly kept me away from cigarettes. Once I had to clean up the sidewalk where a person's brain laid splattered due to jumping out a window. Other times I worked the operating room where after a late Saturday night I slept in the on-call doctors bed until they needed me to mop up all the blood and guts on the floor. At that time they also incinerated the amputated arms and legs. It was my job to take them to the incinerator and that always bothered me. It was part of people they would never get back. I will never forget the smell of the cauterized flesh and mixture of glues. It was awful.

One day the housekeeping mothers (as we liked to call them) sent me up to an area that was not used anymore. Up in the attic of this old hospital. Scary as all hell, lots of cobwebs, old wooden wheelchairs and old medical paraphelia. Reminded me of something you would see out of a horror film. This did not bother me much, but the reason they sent me did. To get rid of some of the only mammals naturally capable of "true and sustained flight": bats. I hated bats. I had believed all the old tripe about them such as; they get stuck in your hair, they suck your blood, they are blind and that they all carried rabies. It took me a while but I did manage to catch the few that were nesting up there, but I have to admit I was screaming like a banshee and laughing due to my fear the whole time as the bats weaved and darted all around me. I used a very crude technique of swatting them with a broom, a bucket and throwing a large cloth over them. Took a while but my task was fulfilled and I vowed never again.

Turns out bats are pretty darn cool animals. Also turns out that bats are pretty clean creatures who groom themselves like cats do and fewer than one percent of all bats ever get rabies. They do bite but usually in self defense. It also turns out they have excellent vision and some like the Pallid Bat have big ears and excellent hearing. It also turns out that not all bats use echolocation for hearing. Microbats do, but all but one type of the megabats do not.

Echolocation is the ability to use biological sonar to navigate or locate. In other words some bats give out a sound and listen to the echo's of those sounds to locate and identify objects. The sound rebounds and the difference in the time it is received and intensity recieved by each ear allows the recipient to measure the horizontal angle. This allows them to perceive the direction of the objects, the density and the distance.

At the time, this inspired me to to use echolocation as one of the explanations to the press of how I was able to drive a car blindfolded like in this footage of me from Evening Magazine.

Echolocation is a pretty amazing feat and thought in the past to only have existed in some animals like the aforementioned bats, shrews, dolphins and crustaceans. Recently though it has become more apparent that humans can develop this sense as well.

Below is a video of an amazing kid, Ben Underwood who uses echolocation to play video games and basketball.

It seems that even more blind people are being taught to use echolocation to navigate their environment and yes, it is a skill that can be learned. It is a fairly new field having only been brought to attention of scientists since the 1950's. Most blind people who practice the technique though like to think that it is not a learned sense but inherent and intuitive. They liken the process to "feeling pressure" from items as they pass them.

When you think about it, it is quite logical that blind people would inherit this sense. Both vision and hearing are very closely related in how they work. They both use reflected waves of energy. Seeing uses light waves, hearing uses sound-waves. They both work off interpreting that reflected energy wave. The reflected waves via echoes can give detailed information about location and the dimensions and density of items. This latter being very important as you can learn over time what that density means and associated it with what you already know. A hedge would be less dense than a wall and so forth.

Looking back at the history there are many documented cases of this amazing phenomena. The first goes as far back as the late seventeen hundreds into the early eighteen hundreds when a man by the name of James Holman used the sound of his cane to travel the world.

In this day and age, a man by the name of Daniel Kish, who has been blind since he was 13 months old and uses a device to emit clicks and get around, teaches other teenagers to use the technique to the point where they even ride mountain bikes though the wilderness.

To me this is just more proof that there are so many truly amazing things in the world that one does not have to look towards pseudoscience to find them. I love the amazing world we live in and this is a perfect example of why.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent thoughts.

    The world is full of amazings mysteries


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