Blindness enhances auditory obstacle circumvention: Assessing echolocation, sensory substitution, and visual-based navigation

07 Jul 2017

Performance for an obstacle circumvention task was assessed under conditions of visual, auditory only (using echolocation) and tactile (using a sensory substitution device, SSD) guidance. A Vicon motion capture system was used to measure human movement kinematics objectively. Ten normally sighted participants, 8 blind non-echolocators, and 1 blind expert echolocator navigated around a 0.6 x 2 m obstacle that was varied in position across trials, at the midline of the participant or 25 cm to the right or left. Although visual guidance was the most effective, participants successfully circumvented the obstacle in the majority of trials under auditory or SSD guidance. Using audition, blind non-echolocators navigated more effectively than blindfolded sighted individuals with fewer collisions, lower movement times, fewer velocity corrections and greater obstacle detection ranges. The blind expert echolocator displayed performance similar to or better than that for the other groups using audition, but was comparable to that for the other groups using the SSD. The generally better performance of blind than of sighted participants is consistent with the perceptual enhancement hypothesis that individuals with severe visual deficits develop improved auditory abilities to compensate for visual loss, here shown by faster, more fluid, and more accurate navigation around obstacles using sound.