Blind, like a bat
Daniel Kish can’t see, says Michael Finkel, but he’s learned how to navigate the world with echolocation.
THE FIRST THING Daniel Kish does, when I pull up to his tidy gray bungalow in Long Beach, Calif., is make fun of my driving. “You’re going to leave it that far from the curb?” he asks. He’s standing on his stoop, a good 10 paces from my car. I am, indeed, parked about a foot and a half from the curb. The second thing Kish does, in his living room a few minutes later, is remove his prosthetic eyeballs. A couple of times a day they need to be cleaned. “They get gummy,” he explains. He wipes them gently with a white cloth and places them back in.
Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy—Kish is now 44—he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke.
He knew my car was poorly parked because he produced a brief, sharp click with his tongue. The sound waves he created traveled at a speed of more than 1,000 feet per second, bounced off every object around him, and returned to his ears at the same rate.
Kish has trained himself to hear these slight echoes and to interpret their meaning. Standing on his front stoop, he could visualize, with an extraordinary degree of precision, the two pine trees on his front lawn, the curb at the edge of his street, and finally, a bit too far from that curb, my rental car. Kish has given a name to what he does—he calls it “FlashSonar”—but it’s more commonly known by its scientific term, echolocation.
Bats, of course, use echolocation. Beluga whales too. Dolphins. And Daniel Kish. He is so accomplished at echolocation that he’s able to pedal his mountain bike through streets heavy with traffic and on precipitous dirt trails. He climbs trees. He camps out, by himself, deep in the wilderness. He’s lived for weeks at a time in a tiny cabin a 2-mile hike from the nearest road. He travels around the globe. Essentially, though in a way that is unfamiliar to nearly any other human being, Kish can see.
This is not enough for him. Kish is seeking—despite a lack of support from every mainstream blind organization in America—nothing less than a profound reordering of the way the world views blind people, and the way blind people view the world. He’s tired of being told that the blind are best served by staying close to home, sticking only to memorized routes, and depending on the unreliable benevolence of the sighted. Kish preaches complete and unfettered independence, even if the result produces the occasional bloody gash or broken bone.
Kish and a handful of co-workers run a nonprofit organization called World Access for the Blind, headquartered in Kish’s home. World Access offers training on how to gracefully interact with one’s environment, using echolocation as a primary tool. So far, in the decade it has existed, the organization has introduced more than 500 students to echolocation. Kish is not the first blind person to use echolocation, but he’s the only one to meticulously document it, to break it down into its component parts, and to figure out how to teach it. His dream is to help all sight-impaired people see the world as clearly as he does.
KISH’S CLICK IS a thing of beauty—he snaps the tip of his tongue briefly and firmly against the roof of his mouth, creating a momentary vacuum that pops upon release, a sound very much like pushing the igniter on a gas stove. A team of Spanish scientists recently studied Kish’s click and deemed it acoustically ideal for capturing echoes. A machine, they wrote, could do no better.
Echolocation works because our ears, conveniently, are located on both sides of our head. When there’s a noise off to one side, the sound reaches the closer ear about a millisecond—a thousandth of a second—before it reaches the farther ear. That’s enough of a gap for the auditory cortex of our brains to process the information. It’s rare that we turn the wrong way when someone calls our name. In fact, we’re able to process, with phenomenal accuracy, sounds just a few degrees off-center. Having two ears, like having two eyes, also gives us the auditory equivalent of depth perception. We hear in stereo 3-D.
Kish does not go around clicking like a madman. He uses his click sparingly and, depending on his location, varies the volume. When he’s outside, he’ll throw a loud click. In good conditions, he can hear a building 1,000 feet away, a tree from 30 feet, a person from six feet. Up close, he can echolocate a 1-inch diameter pole. He can tell the difference between a pickup truck, a passenger car, and an SUV.
I accompanied Kish on several occasions as he cruised the busy streets of Long Beach. The outside world is an absolute cacophony. Every car, person, dog, stroller, and bicycle makes a sound. Then there are the silent obstacles—what Kish calls urban furniture: benches, traffic signs, telephone poles, postal boxes, fire hydrants, light posts, parked vehicles. Kish hears the sonic reflections from his click even in a place teeming with ambient noise. “It’s like recognizing a familiar voice in a crowd,” he says.
The load upon his mind is undoubtedly immense. Yet he casually processes everything, constructing and memorizing a mental map of his route, all while maintaining an intricate conversation with me. It’s so extraordinary that it seems to border on the magical.
When it’s all put together, says Kish, he has very rich, very detailed pictures in his head.
“In color?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I’ve never seen color, so there’s no color. It’s more like a sonar, like on the Titanic.”
KISH CAN HARDLY remember a time when he didn’t click. He came to it on his own, intuitively, at age 2, about a year after his second eye was removed. Kish was fortunate that his mother never tried to dissuade him from clicking. “That tongue click was everything to me,” he says.
He has a vivid recollection of sneaking out his bedroom window in the middle of the night, at age 2 and a half, and climbing over a fence into his neighbor’s yard. “I was in the habit of exploring whatever I sensed around me,” he wrote in his journal. He soon wondered what was in the yard of the next house. And the one after that. “I was on the other side of the block before someone discovered me prowling around their backyard and had the police return me home to completely flummoxed parents.”
He went to mainstream schools and relied almost exclusively on echolocation to orient himself, though at the time neither he nor his mom had any concept of what he was doing. “There was no one to explain it, there was no one to help me enhance it, and we all just kind of took it for granted,” he says. “My family and friends were like, ‘Yeah, he does this funny click thing and he gets around.’”
He rode his bike with wild abandon. “I used to go to the top of a hill and scream ‘Dive bomb!’ and ride down as fast as I could,” he says. This is when he was 8. The neighborhood kids would scatter. “One day I lost control of the bicycle, crashed through these trash cans, and smashed into a metal light pole. It was a violent collision. I had blood all over my face. I picked myself up and went home.”
IT WAS NEVER Kish’s goal to run a foundation dedicated to the blind. He planned to be a psychologist. But he could not ignore the fact that few blind people enjoyed anything close to his freedom of movement, and he had grown weary of society’s attitude toward the blind. “I am belittled, patronized, disrespected, invaded, restricted, and presumed weak, vulnerable, or otherwise incapacitated,” he wrote in his journal.
So in 2001 he started World Access for the Blind. Blindness, Kish says, should be understood—by both the blind and the sighted—as nothing more than an inconvenience. “Most of my life,” he writes, “I never even thought of myself as blind. In fact, I saw myself as smarter, more agile, stronger, and generally more capable than most other boys my age.”
There are a couple of reasons why the organization hasn’t trained more students. The first is Kish’s general ethos about how blind children should be raised. “Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster,” he writes. “Pain is part of the price of freedom.” This attitude is not wildly popular, especially in a safety-first nation like the United States. Also, echolocation is not easy to master. Kish compares it to piano lessons—anyone can learn basics; very few will make it to Carnegie Hall. Only about 10 percent of the people who learn echolocation, he admits, find their abilities immediately enriched.
And then there is resistance from mainstream organizations. The National Federation of the Blind, the largest blind organization in America, does not endorse Kish’s work. “Let’s just say he’s unique,” says John Paré, the federation’s executive director for strategic initiatives, clearly straining to be polite. Paré believes that for most people, echolocation is not worth the tremendous effort required to grasp it. “We urge people to learn how to use a long white cane,” he says.
Kish has an idea, something he has been quietly working on for more than a decade. What Kish envisions is the next leap in human echolocation. His idea is to become more like a bat.
Bats are the best. Some can fly in complete darkness, navigating around thousands of other bats while nabbing insects 1-millimeter wide. They can perceive high-frequency sound waves, beyond the range of human hearing—waves that are densely packed together, whose echoes give precise detail. There is evidence that humans could be that good. Bats have tiny brains. Just the auditory cortex of a human brain is many times larger than the entire brain of a bat.
To echolocate like bats, humans need a way to create bat-like sound waves, and we need to be able to hear those waves. In pursuit of these goals, Kish has spent time in New Zealand with Leslie Kay, who worked on underwater sonar for the British Navy during the Cold War. For nearly 50 years, Kay tinkered with ideas for helping the blind to see with sound. He eventually introduced, after many weeks of consultation with Kish, a product called the K-Sonar, a flashlight-size machine that attaches to a blind person’s cane and emits ultrasonic pulses. The pulses are then digitally translated into tones humans can hear, through earphones.
“Flowers actually sound soft,” says Kish. “Stones sound hard and crisp. It pretty much represents the physical environment as music.”
If money were no object, Kish believes that blind people could essentially mimic bats within five years. Our hearing, Kish says, can be increased tenfold through surgical augmentation—basically, inner-ear microphone implants. Combine the two and it’s possible that the blind will be able to take up tennis. Kish figures it would require $15 million to prove whether or not his idea is feasible. He fears he’ll never get the opportunity.
“It’s virtually impossible to gather funding for experimental devices for the blind,” he says. “The blind population is seen as a lost cause.” Kish’s patience is running thin. He is still reaching out to scientists and studying scholarly journals and pondering ways to conjure the money.
But more and more these days, he finds himself daydreaming about moving to a cabin in the woods and devoting himself to playing music, to writing. Let the new crop of echolocators take over the research and the networking and the panhandling. So for the foreseeable future, at least, Kish will continue to click in his usual way. And the sighted world will continue to not notice.