June 20, 2021

Humans Could Develop a Sixth Sense, Scientists Say

2 min read
Humans have some seriously limited senses. We can't smell as well as dogs, see as many colors as mantis shrimp, or find our way home using the Earth's magnetic poles like sea turtles. But there's one animal sense that we could soon master: bat-like echolocation.

Scientists in Japan recently demonstrated this feat in the lab, proving humans can use echolocation—or the ability to locate objects through sound—to identify the shape and rotation of various objects. That could help us stealthily “see” in the dark, whether we’re sneaking downstairs for a midnight snack or heading into combat.

As bats swoop around objects, they send out high-pitched sound waves from distinct angles that bounce back at different time intervals. This helps the tiny mammals learn more about the geometry, texture, or movement of an object.

If humans could similarly recognize these time-varying acoustic patterns, it could quite literally expand how we see the world, says Miwa Sumiya, Ph.D., the first author of the new study, which appears in Plos One.

“Examining how humans can acquire new sensing abilities to recognize environments using sounds [i.e., echolocation] may lead to the understanding of the flexibility of human brains,” Sumiya, a researcher at the Center for Information and Neural Networks in Osaka, Japan, tells Pop Mech. “We may also be able to gain insights into sensing strategies of other species [like bats] by comparing with knowledge gained in studies on human echolocation.”

Dolphins also use echolocation to identify and hunt down fish.

To test this theory out, Sumiya’s team created an elaborate setup. In one room, the researchers gave participants a pair of headphones and two different tablets—one to generate their synthetic echolocation signal, and the other to listen to the recorded echoes. In a second room (not visible to participants), two oddly shaped, 3D cylinders would either rotate or stand still.

When prompted, the 15 participants initiated their echolocation signals through the tablet. Their sound waves released in pulses, traveled into the second room, and hit the 3D cylinders.

It took a bit of creativity to transform the sound waves back into something the human participants could recognize. “The synthetic echolocation signal used in this study included high-frequency signals up to 41 kHz that humans cannot listen to,” Sumiya explains.


Story published courtesy of Popular Mechanics

By Sarah Wells

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