Ultrafine spatial acuity of blind expert human echolocators

Exp Brain Res. 2012 Feb;216(4):483-8. doi: 10.1007/s00221-011-2951-1. Epub 2011 Nov 20.


Echolocating organisms represent their external environment using reflected auditory information from emitted vocalizations. This ability, long known in various non-human species, has also been documented in some blind humans as an aid to navigation, as well as object detection and coarse localization. Surprisingly, our understanding of the basic acuity attainable by practitioners-the most fundamental underpinning of echoic spatial perception-remains crude. We found that experts were able to discriminate horizontal offsets of stimuli as small as ~1.2° auditory angle in the frontomedial plane, a resolution approaching the maximum measured precision of human spatial hearing and comparable to that found in bats performing similar tasks. Furthermore, we found a strong correlation between echolocation acuity and age of blindness onset. This first measure of functional spatial resolution in a population of expert echolocators demonstrates precision comparable to that found in the visual periphery of sighted individuals.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Blindness / psychology*
  • Blindness / rehabilitation
  • Echolocation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Pitch Discrimination / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult