After losing his vision as an infant, Kish taught himself to move around with the help of echolocation. Like bats, Kish uses his mouth to produce a series of short, crisp clicking sounds, and then listens to how those sounds bounce off the surrounding landscape. (Our winged neighbors tend to emit these clicks at frequencies humans can’t hear, but Kish’s clicks are perfectly audible to human ears.) From there, Kish makes a mental map of his environment, considering everything from broad contours—like walls and doors—down to textural details.
Kish now teaches echolocation, mostly to students who are blind. For these students, Kish believes that an echolocation practice can buoy confidence and independence. Kish’s own experience is persuasive—he famously bikes along hilly, car-lined streets—and a growing body of scholarly research has begun to unpack exactly how expert echolocaters do their thing. This research has also backed up the idea that this skill is highly learnable. When researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, asked novice echolocators to use tongue clicks to determine which of the two objects in front of them was larger, the newbies were soon able to do so in a way that the scientists couldn’t attribute to chance.
Whatever your sightedness, there’s something to be said for learning to listen more attentively to sonic scenery. Kish believes that vision has a way of blunting the other senses unless people work to really flex them. Deft echolocators, he says, are able to perceive fine differences—distinguishing, say, between an oleander bush (“a million sharp returns”) and an evergreen (“wisps closely packed together, which sound like a bit like a sponge or a curtain”). They’re discovering sonic wonder wherever they go. We asked Kish to tailor a lesson for first-timers just learning to listen to the landscape.