Side note from the road: How to Think Like a Bat


My first study in graduate school  was on echolocation: that fantastic ability of many bats, dolphins, and humans to use auditory signals to navigate through a complex environment. With Larry Rosenblum as my mentor, I studied human echolocation among humans who had typical visual abilities. To accomplish these studies we would blindfold our participants and keep them in this imposed darkness for the duration of a set of trials. Many participants were nervous at first and would move tentatively, often with poor balance, unable to implicitly trust that their path and the researcher running the trials would maintain their total safety. After a set of practice trials and a little initial stumbling, soon the participants would become bolder. Louder. The sounds would get more robust and distinctive. Unbeknownst to our participants, often a student or faculty member passing by would stop to watch them echolocate our surfaces — curious at the blindfolded, noisy spectacle created by this paradigm.

As a longtime audiophile, I loved doing this research! I loved the sounds that people made to echolocate, the forced focus on sound created by the blindfold, and the discovery of hearing mechanisms from echolocation that could be used for movement. Most humans enjoy the world through a visually-dominant perspective, but we maintain a glorious set of auditory abilities if only we use them. During these years, I would routinely walk around my apartment in the dark relying on my memory and the auditory cues in space as guidance. Testing my own fortitude as an echolocater. Between assignments and during moments of ambiguity and frustration in grad school (I seem to recall at least a few of those) I would walk the halls — listening to the sounds wondering which parts of the signal could effectively enhance my phenomenology and which would be noisy/distracting. In my mind, doing this was an antagonism to the philosopher Thomas Nagel: we do echolocate, dammit, and we can all think like a bat if we try. The sound fills and guides us, even if we are not aware of its contribution.

I’m still an audiophile and I still enjoy darkness and the forced reliance on my auditory perceptual abilities. Notably, many people have asked: why do I use audio recordings instead of posting videos on this blog?  It’s pretty simple…I love audio. I love listening to the nuance in people’s voices. The disfluencies of language, the contours of pitch and intensity, the personality that produces the words is fascinating to me. Vision is great, and I use it with gusto when available! But, when forced to focus on the acoustic world, some different secrets may be revealed. Moreover, I have a suspicion that more of these influential scholars who I’ve targeted are willing to speak to me because they are not being asked to put the whole thing on camera. Adonis‘ visage is not a pre-requisite to becoming a scholar, nor is the talent for maintaining a forced smile during a 90-minute conversation on camera.  Several of my conversants have asked that I not take a portrait photo, and most have requested assurance prior to our meeting that I will not be capturing a video. With my aims on an oral history, all of that is just fine. The photos are bonus, the audio is the story.

Today, as a part of our travels we ventured out to Wind Cave National Park, to walk through the miles of cavern it contains — close to 150 miles mapped to date! It is an impressive site: no stalagmites, much less any stalactites. Rather the extensive passageways are covered in complex box structures and popcorn formations over most of the walls. These thin calcium formations look eerily like the wall residue created by the Aliens (i.e., in the James Cameron movie) and like that movie, these structures coat the walls. The result is miles of dimly lit cave paths, some areas of real darkness, and an echo suppressing effect as sounds are bounced in multiple directions and quickly diffused by the calcium formations. It produces an awe-inspiring feeling of being out of time and place. There is no phone reception and, if one lingers behind the group of people touring the caves, there is a sudden imposed isolation that can be gained. I lingered. I enjoyed gentle dripping water and the rush of lightly flowing air in accompaniment to a dark and calming space.

With our tour group we spent about an hour wandering along the established path in the cave, gawking at the weird, alien structures, and listening to the absence of modern sounds. The beauty and rawness of this area of South Dakota is palpable. Between the impressive and massive Badlands to this cave today, with a quick stop off for dinner in Deadwood, these prairie lands have been amazing.  Soon we will be off again, to Salt Lake City, Seattle, Portland, and down the coast to California with many more conversations to come. But for now, while walking through the darkest parts of the caves, I found that I couldn’t help myself to try to think like a bat. Take that, Nagel.

(Photo  taken by Alexis Yael of me staring at some of that delicious popcorn formation calcium in the Wind Cave, SD.)

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