Echolocation and Ben Underwood, 1992-2009

"To society he's blind," said Ben's mother, "but that doesn't make him handicapped. He just can't see."

She also said, "One thing that I truly get back from Ben being blind is that he truly sees people from within. When he hears someone say that someone else is ugly, or anything negative towards someone else. He says, 'That's whats wrong with sighted people, you all look at one another and judge what you look like,' I see that statement being so true. "

His eyes removed because of cancer, Ben grew up without sight, but at age five learned to click with his tongue about every half secondto echolocate—to ride his bike, shoot hoops, play video games, and throw pillows at his sisters. Echoes informed Ben as to the position of objects, how big they were, their general shape, and how solid they were. Ben recognized a pole as tall and narrow, a building as tall and very broad. A pillow was soft and not dense.

I am left with mystery. Watching the boy in action left me scratching my head in amazement. Take a look for yourself:

Sadly, just shy of his 17th birthday this amazing and inspiring boy died of another cancer after the one that took his eyes. The obit video can be watched here.

By clicking, Ben avoided curbs while riding his bicycle in his Sacramento, California neighborhood. Even though he couldn't see the hoop, he could sink a basketball through the basket. He played video games by distinguishing sounds. He wrote a novel, typing it at 60 words per minute on a standard keyboard. "I can hear that wall behind you over there. I can hear right there--the radio, and the fan," Ben told one reporter.

Ben was not the only blind person who developed echolocation. Others are Daniel Kish, 40, of Long Beach, California, who leads other blind people on hikes in the wilderness or in mountain biking. "I have mental images that are very rich, very complex,” says Kish. (Watch Kish teach others to use echolocation.) James Holman (1786-1857) used the sound of his tapping cane to travel alone around the world.

See the piece on Graham Young, a man who is blind but somehow can see. Young can sense moving objects but doesn't know how he does it. V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist, explained Young's ability.

Here is a web site dedicated to Ben Underwood. Here is his mother's account of him in "Ben's Life."
Bats send sound signals in rapid bursts at high frequencies. Their sonar can bounce off flying mosquitoes, which the bats swoop on with open mouths. Dolphins find their meals in the same manner. Echolocation, uses sound to identify objects and their locations. As with vision, the brain processes energy reflected off an object—only as sound rather than light.

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