Listening like a blind person

I've sometimes watched the fully blind navigate city sidewalks and wondered how they manage to avoid obstacles and find destinations. The canes they sweep back and forth certainly provides textural and landscape information, but it can't tell them where they are. Furthermore, I've watched them avoid obstacles and follow sidewalks without the use of a cane. Besides mental maps and directional sense, they must be using their auditory environment to stay on course.

Could I learn to do that?

I have a 15 minute urban walk to class from my apartment, and I've started paying attention to all the sounds around me. I normally hear conversations, footsteps (when they're behind me), car horns, and trolley bells. Now that I've started really listening, I hear my own footsteps and breathing, the footsteps of those around me, birds in the bushes and in the sky, the engines and tires of cars both near and far, doors opening and closing, conversations, and footsteps up and down the sidewalk.

It's hard to release focus on the "important" sounds and gather in all the background noise, which our brains are designed to filter away at the preconscious level. But I'm getting better, and finding it easier each day to slip into this full-reception mode. It's a discrete change in consciousness; I can't stay in the middle ground.

I play games with the soundscape. Can I tell how far behind me another pedestrian is? How far away and how fast is that bicycle moving, and how wide are its tires? (Mountain bikes are pitched lower than street bikes.) I've even felt comfortable enough to walk with my eyes closed on a few occasions, trusting the sound of footsteps in front of me to lead me at a safe following distance.

Now that I'm decently aware of the full sound-scape, I'm able to explore the second level: Echoes and voids. Cement and glass walls reflect road noise, so I can hear the wall itself by its echoing of the rest of the world. Shrubbery and people absorb noise, so they show up as voids, spaces between the sounds. It feels like a soft object is pressing against my ear.

I doubt I'll become as aware and proficient as a blind person, since I'm not forced to navigate in a world of sound and touch only. I'm certain I won't be able to use click-echolocation any time soon, though I'll continue to try it out. But I have no doubt that my explorations will enhance my awareness and enrich my experience of the world.

Give it a try yourself!


Responses: 4 so far

  1. appux says:

    Rumor has it that Tom Brown's "Scout" classes include long stretches during which the students are blindfolded.

    Also, I tried twice to post this comment from one of the school computers but couldn't make it work. Maybe because I was using Internet Explorer? Not sure.

  2. Baron says:

    Thanks Tim. I vaguely recall trying this out too. Must try again!

  3. Bob Futrelle says:

    Walk around your apt. a lot with your eyes closed. As long as there are things around making noise, the noise will be modulated by any objects you are near.

  4. Bob Futrelle says:

    Somehow I hadn't read the original longer post. It has the right idea. My point had to do with "modulation".