Welcome to the World of the Sighted

I just had what we jokingly referred to as Echolocation Woodstock. Read that article first if you haven’t, as this one picks up where it leaves off. It discusses my introduction to echolocation, a process where a blind person can learn to see by making tongue clicks. The brain interprets the echoes and activates the visual center of the brain. The previous article ended with me seeing my cat run up a flight of stairs. I thought I had seen it all, but just wait until you read what happened after that.

Echolocation activates a region of the brain which blind people don’t normally use, the occipital region in the back of the head. I could actually feel blood flowing into new parts of my brain throughout this process. We discussed this before breakfast. Super foods and carbs sounded like the way to go. Super foods help the brain to make new pathways, and carbs provide energy. We had my famous (among friends) Happy Hacker Hash browns. We also had a powdered drink with super foods called Amazing Grass infused with cacao, as well as a traditional cacao drink with chili powder. Cacao, the raw form of chocolate, has an interesting chemical profile. Most noteably for these purposes it raises serotonin levels. Now we had prepared ourselves properly.

We started out in the hallway outside of my condo. They turned an old school into lofts, so the hallways and stairwells look and sound like a school. He had me walk down the hallway without touching the walls by using echolocation. Just to make it clear: echolocation does not normally replace the use of a cane, but for this exercise I did not use a cane. I could hear the hard surfaces, and gradually the walls came into focus. I could actually do it. The walls provided the shoreline, and I could actually see them on either side and keep in the center.

I began to understand that this required a whole new way of thinking. Justin gave constant instruction to help me learn. “Scan left. Scan right. Now scan straight ahead. You have to start thinking like a sighted person.” In deed, the muscles in the back of my neck would start to hurt because I did not need to move my head as much before. Now the direction of my gaze actually meant something.

We then journeyed to the stairwell. Now I would really begin to understand what thinking like a sighted person really meant. I scanned left, and saw a set of stairs going up like I had in my loft. I scanned right, and saw a set of stairs going down, which made sense. I scanned up, and saw something extend above and going back. What the hell? It took a minute to realize with Justin’s help that I saw the set of steps above me on another stairway. I had never experienced that kind of vivid three dimensional emersion before. My brain flipped.

After a quick break we ventured outside. I don’t mind saying I felt a little scared. Up to this point mobility has always scared me. But without long-range vision can you blame me?

We started by just walking around the area around my condo’s building. Justin found various objects and had me click at them to hear how they sounded. The brain must build these associations to do successful echolocation. I discovered that I really like the way trees look and sound. The trunks sound hard and woody, but the leaves sound cool and soft, like in Treebeard’s song. I also enjoyed seeing the different organic shapes of trees. I feel like I could just look at trees all day. Justin found that very funny.

We then worked on cars, since they occur fairly commonly. I could hear the hard metal and smooth glass. I could also begin to detect the shape of the car. Eventually I could reliably distinguish the front from the back by seeing the angle. This required more scanning, something I have to get used to doing. At firstly it honestly didn’t occur to me and Justin had to remind me. This scanning seems key to thinking like a sighted person.

I also had to learn about detecting layers. For example, a tree standing in front of a car has two distinct sounds at two different distances: the glass and metal car with the wood and leafy tree in front of it. A fence in front of a building has the harder sound from the brick, but the fence gives it a metallic wavy quality from the pattern, plus the crossbar gives something to see. This takes time. It also shows the awesome detail made possible by echolocation.

The time had now come to go on a real journey. I knew it had to happen at some point. Even though I felt nervous I figured I wanted to learn echolocation to improve my mobility, so I should just go for it and see what happens. We decided to go to Whole Foods, a healthy supermarket a few blocks away. Now I would get to experience how much my echolocation skills would help.

We started walking, with Justin evaluating my mobility. He had already convinced me to purchase a longer cane, which has worked out very well for me. This increases short-range vision. Using too short of a cane makes one falter and opens them to danger, since their stride has a greater length than the area felt by the cane. He corrected a few fine points about using the cane properly in this new way.

He then showed me how I could use echolocation to make sure I have a clear path, allowing me to increase my walking speed. For me, this sense of not knowing caused me to walk more slowly, which then made me lose my orientation, which then made it impossible to estimate how far I had travelled, which would then make me panic and the whole thing would just come apart. Now for the first time I truly understood that Echolocation provided something I couldn’t even articulate, long-range vision.

I flashed back to my childhood. My dad took me across the street to a big soccer field. He told me I could run as far and as fast as I wanted, but I just couldn’t do it. I always held myself back. How did I really know that I had no obstacles in front of me? I had no long-range vision. This caused him to get angry at me, which caused me to not want to do it anymore. Who wants to get yelled at?

Now I could use my new long-range vision to ensure that nothing lay in front of me, so could walk at a normal pace. This new way of walking felt much more exhilarating. Things seemed to flow together more smoothly, and I could indeed perceive a greater whole much more clearly, not needing to stop and examine each part. But of course I could examine things too. I could see the line of buildings on my left and the line of cars on my right. These could help me keep oriented. I no longer needed to clumsily shoreline along a bunch of uneven buildings. I could now walk more in the middle and look at them. We also saw various metal boxes for mail, recycling, and the like. Trees, poles, and signs also appeared along the landscape. It really started to happen! It also really began to hurt my brain.

By the time we got to Whole Foods the images had started becoming a little faded. Justin told me to take a deep breath and click once to reset my brain. It worked, but I could feel my brain approaching its limit. He also gave me another tip: click slowly to get better muscle control and a sharper click. He assured me the walk home would go more easily.

We explored around the store a little. I kind of wish he wouldn’t have sent away our help, but I understood why. Exploring the aisles and items felt cool. I could tell the difference between a shelf with leafy lettuce and a shelf with harder squash. I could also start to get a little bit of the layout. Eventually we did get some assistance to help actually buy some things. This included fruit salad, vegan General Tso’s Chicken, everything bagels, cookies, more cacao, and hemp seed. Now we had food.

I also purchased more of the awesome hard candy I got for that VoiceOver presentation, pomegranate this time. “I thought it would help keep our mouths moist.” I said. I had become so immersed I didn’t realize how that would sound to an observer. It seemed extra funny because we had joked about our proximity to the gay neighborhood, or gayborhood as we call it. In fact, once my GPS even reported that to me. I had to do a double take, like did it really just say what I thought it said? Seriously, the hard candy did help, and I would recommend that echolocators keep a piece in their pocket for this reason.

The walk home did go easier. It had started raining but it felt pleasant and didn’t get strong enough to drown out the echoes. As we got back to my apartment, Justin said he’d show me how to find the front door. He had me walk up to it and click. He told me to listen for a high sound, and quickly I came to hear the awning over the front entrance. I didn’t even know we had an awning. Now it seemed so clear.

We made it inside. I felt hungry and tired. Justin said I did a great job. “Welcome to the world of the sighted!”

We spent the evening eating good healthy food and just relaxing. We both needed it. Later, when I lay down, I could see the walls and ceiling of my bedroom. At first this seemed weird, but it quickly became comforting. I began to realize that I would start seeing things constantly.

I should say that two types of echolocation exist: active and passive. Most blind people know about passive echolocation, hearing a doorway in a hallway for example. Active echolocation simply introduces a cue for the brain to pick up and interpret. This means that learning active echolocation also boosts passive echolocation. This makes one feel much more engaged or plugged in to the world around them. Even now I can see my iMac sitting in front of me without even clicking.

I had completed the first day of this intensive, and my world had completely changed. Stay tuned to find out what happened next.