The Blind Man Who Taught Himself To See

Tue, Mar 1, 2011

Features

Kish, here biking in Long Beach, preaches total independence. Photo courtesy Daniel Kish

It begins with the lid of a pot. “Stand up,” Kish instructs, then guides me to the center of his living room and ties a blindfold around my head, while mentioning, in a schoolteachery tone, that I should not for an instant think that wearing a blindfold represents the experience of being blind. A blindfold almost always causes someone who can see to feel frightened, confused, and disoriented. Kish is none of these things.

“Now wait here,” he says. Though he was born and raised in Southern California, Kish has an odd, almost foreign-sounding accent — a bouillabaisse of Canadian, British, and relaxed Los Angeleno. He says it’s a result of his many travels. “I’m a natural mimic,” he explains. Kish is 5-foot-7, thin and fit, with an impressive mane of dark brown hair and a meandering winestain birthmark on his left cheek.

I hear him walk into his kitchen, his bare feet padding faintly on the hardwood floor. “I’m very particular about feeling life and air around my feet,” he once wrote in the journal he braille-typed and shared with me. I’m barefoot as well. Kish asked me to remove my shoes, which is one of his many little rules you quickly learn to adopt. Like: He’s Daniel Kish, and anyone who calls him “Dan” more than once may be struck with withering disdain. And don’t disturb him during his sleep time — lately, he’s been sleeping just two hours twice a day, usually from 5 to 7 in the morning and again from 5 to 7 in the evening. He often stays up all night dealing with World Access logistics. He lives alone and does not have a significant other. He plays a lot of Celtic hymnal music.

I listen as Kish opens a cabinet and rummages amid his pots. He returns and stands behind me. “Make a click,” he says.

It’s a terrible click, a sloppy click; what Kish calls a “clucky click.” Kish’s click is a thing of beauty — he snaps the tip of his tongue briefly and firmly against the roof of his mouth, creating a momentary vacuum that pops upon release, a sound very much like pushing the igniter on a gas stove. A team of Spanish scientists recently studied Kish’s click and deemed it acoustically ideal for capturing echoes. A machine, they wrote, could do no better.

My click will work for now. Kish tells me that he’s holding a large glass lid, the top to a Crock-Pot, a few inches in front of me. “Click again,” he says. There’s a distinct echo, a smearing of sound as if I’m standing in my shower. “Now click,” he says. The echo’s gone. “I’ve lifted it up. Can you tell?”

I can, quite clearly. “Click again,” he instructs. “Where is it?” I click; there’s no echo.

“It’s still lifted,” I say.

“Try again,” says Kish. “But move your head, listen to your environment.”

I turn my head to the right and click. Nothing. Then I click to the left. Bingo. “It’s over here,” I say, tilting my head in the direction of the lid.

“Exactly,” says Kish. “Now let’s try it with a pillow.”

There are two reasons echolocation works. The first is that our ears, conveniently, are located on both sides of our head. When there’s a noise off to one side, the sound reaches the closer ear about a millisecond — a thousandth of a second — before it reaches the farther ear. That’s enough of a gap for the auditory cortex of our brain to process the information. It’s rare that we turn the wrong way when someone calls our name. In fact, we’re able to process, with phenomenal accuracy, sounds just a few degrees off-center. Having two ears, like having two eyes, also gives us the auditory equivalent of depth perception. We hear in stereo 3-D. This allows us, using only our ears, to build a detailed map of our surroundings.

The second reason echolocation works is that humans, on average, have excellent hearing. We hear better than we see. Much better. On the light spectrum, human eyes can perceive only a small sliver of all the varieties of light — no ultraviolet, no infrared. Converting this to sound terminology, we can see less than one octave of frequency. We hear a range of 10 octaves.

We can also hear behind us; we can hear around corners. Sight can’t do this. Human hearing is so good that if you have decent hearing, you will never once in your life experience true silence. Even if you sit completely still in a soundproof room, you will detect the beating of your own heart.

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Kish does not go around clicking like a madman. He uses his click sparingly and, depending on his location, varies the volume. When he’s outside, he’ll throw a loud click. In good conditions, he can hear a building 1,000 feet away, a tree from 30 feet, a person from six feet. Up close, he can echolocate a one-inch diameter pole. He can tell the difference between a pickup truck, a passenger car, and an SUV. He can locate trail signs in the forest, then run his finger across the engraved letters and determine which path to take. Every house, he explains, has its own acoustic signature.

He can hear the variation between a wall and a bush and a chain-link fence. Bounce a tennis ball off a wall, Kish says, then off a bush. Different response. So too with sound. Given a bit of time, he can echolocate something as small as a golf ball. Sometimes, in a parking garage, he can echolocate the exit faster than a sighted person can find it.

I accompanied Kish on several occasions as he cruised the busy streets of Long Beach. The outside world is an absolute cacophony. Every car, person, dog, stroller, and bicycle makes a sound. So do gusts of wind, bits of blowing garbage, and rustling leaves. Doors open and close. Change jangles. People talk. Then there are the silent obstacles — what Kish calls urban furniture: benches, traffic signs, telephone poles, postal boxes, fire hydrants, light posts, parked vehicles. Kish hears the sonic reflections from his click even in a place teeming with ambient noise. “It’s like recognizing a familiar voice in a crowd,” he says. The load upon his mind is undoubtedly immense. Yet he casually processes everything, constructing and memorizing a mental map of his route, all while maintaining an intricate conversation with me. It’s so extraordinary that it seems to border on the magical.

When we walk into a restaurant — never a simple choice with Kish, since he’s a strict vegan — he makes a much quieter click. Kish describes the images he receives as akin to a brief flick of the lights in a dark room; you get enough essential information — tables here, stairway there, support pillars here — to navigate your way through. “It becomes as ridiculous for blind people to run into a wall as it is for sighted people,” he once wrote in his FlashSonar manual. He strolls casually across the restaurant, making one or two more clicks as we approach our table, then sits down. It’s both smooth and subtle. Kish says that it is rare a sighted person even notices he’s making an unusual noise. Almost all blind people instantly do.

What people do notice about Kish is his long white cane. His blind person’s cane. Using echolocation, Kish could get around without one. For most of his youth, in fact, he never carried a cane, seeking to avoid the stigma attached to it. Now, as he approaches middle age, he’s come to believe that whatever can conveniently provide him with more information about his environment he will use. Echolocation’s chief liability is that it is not good at detecting holes in the ground, or small dropoffs, which a cane can do. There are also some figure-ground issues with echolocation — a park bench can “disappear” when it’s directly in front of a stone wall — and a cane, in essence, increases the length of your arm by as much as five feet.

Kish also keeps aware, during the day, of where the sun is striking him — a good way to determine direction — and how the cracks between sidewalk blocks line up; if you remain steadily perpendicular to them, you’re not veering.

When it’s all put together, says Kish, he has very rich, very detailed pictures in his head.

“In color?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I’ve never seen color, so there’s no color. It’s more like a sonar, like on the Titanic.”

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MJ - who has written 297 posts on Men’s Journal.


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1 Comments For This Post

  1. The Pope?... From TV? Says:

    This is amazing stuff. I’ve read about it previously but never read about somebody using it so extensively. Very well-written article and very informative.

    [Reply]

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