When one man lost his eyesight, he turned to another skill: echolocation. Find out what we learned last week from iTunes’ top podcast.
2. For their six-part podcast, Invisibilia hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller examine the invisible stuff that shapes us.
3. In the third episode, we met a man who learned to see without his eyes: in short, a different kind of Batman.
So put away your bat mask — this is a whole other superpower.
4. Step 1: Learn about the forces around you.
Could your thoughts influence a rat going through a maze? It’s not telepathy: It’s expectancy effects, and how we perceive others’ abilities can actually tweak how they behave, whether they be rat or human.
Scientist Bob Rosenthal first documented this unconscious effect way back in the 1960s when he hung up some signs on rat cages indicating which were the Pinkies and which were the Brains. When NPR recreated the rat experiment for Invisibilia, the “smart” rats did almost twice as well than the so-called “dumb” rats.
5. Step 2: Surround yourself with those who believe in you.
How is this thought sorcery even possible? It’s quite simple: Your expectations fiddle your behavior knobs in tiny ways. So if you think a rat is shrewd, you might handle him a little more gently. If you set low expectations for someone, you might make less eye contact or stand a little further away, says Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.
A perfect example is Daniel Kish, profiled in the episode, who lost his sight as a toddler. Having been raised with the freedom to climb, kick dirt, and play like a kid, he had the elbow room to hone his clicking, a form of echolocation, to get around — even if it meant elbow pads.
6. Step 3: Know your villain.
OK, so the enemy here doesn’t leave a Joker-shaped hole in the wall. For the blind, that’s because it’s not a clear-cut thing or nemesis with slapdash lipstick: It’s thinking.
More than half of people with a visual disability are unemployed, even though they have high academic scores for those with impairments of any kind. The discrepancy, Spiegel and Miller found, is a systematic stifling of blind kids’ independence.
Kids aren’t required to go to schools for the blind as of 1975’s Education for All Handicapped Children Act, but in a litigious society, they’re regularly peeled off of equipment and frequently assisted. The word “can’t” is their foe — and it’s often because their guardians don’t want them to get hurt.
But that, in turn, prevents intuitive clicking or other echolocating skills from ever developing.
7. Step 4: Choose your weapon — and bat signal.
When Kish found a book titled The Making Of Blind Men by Robert Scott, which proposed blindness was a social construction, everything changed. “Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster,” he told Spiegel and Miller.
And so he had a new mission: Save the blind from cultural low expectations and teach them how to echolocate. Kish started a nonprofit called World Access for the Blind, and that’s when his bike trick became pivotal.
Kish’s ability to ride a bike became his bat signal — any TV appearance might mean a blind child could hear about it and contact him. And it worked: Slowly he gathered students.
8. Step 5: Victory.
When German neuroscientist Lore Thaler saw how easily Kish moves through space, she wanted to see how his brain worked in an fMRI. Though for decades scientists figured the visual cortex is dormant when you go blind, when Kish heard playback of his clicking, his lit up like a disco ball, says Miller. (You can see some of their echolocation in action here.)
Dozens of labs are curiously examining these echolocating internal visuals, and one researcher even postulates that it might be a lot like having peripheral vision.
And that simmers down to one victory: You might not need eyes to see.