Human Sonar and Self-Experimentation

This fascinating article by Daniel Kish, a blind psychologist, describes how he navigates via tongue clicks. The echos tell him about his surroundings. I was struck by the similarities with self-experimentation:

  1. Don’t wait for experts. A blind person could wait for a sighted person (“At the time I went to school, blind kids either waited for people to take us around or we taught ourselves to strike out on our own”). Just as I could have waited for a sleep expert to figure out why I was waking up too early. But I didn’t: I struck out on my own via self-experimentation.
  2. Many little probes. Kish guided himself by clicking his tongue many times. Likewise, effective self-experimentation, in my experience, involves many little experiments.
  3. Free. Kish can go where he wants when he wants. It costs nothing. Likewise, my self-experimentation needs no grant, and allows me to study whatever I want and reach any conclusion.
  4. Learning by doing. An experiment, like sonar, involves doing something, getting feedback, and moving forward based on interpretation of the feedback.
  5. Active better than passive. “Passive sonar that relies on incidental noises such as footsteps produces relatively vague images. Active sonar, in which a noise such as a tongue click is produced specifically to generate echoes, is much more precise,” writes Kish. Likewise, I’ve learned more from active experimentation than from measuring something day after day, which relies on natural variation.
  6. Ancient. “The readiness with which people learn sonar suggests to me it may be an inbuilt skill,” writes Kish. Self-experimentation is a form of trial and error, which predates humans.
  7. Verification in other ways. “Ultimately, students verify what they hear by touching,” writes Kish. The solutions I come up with via self-experimentation I verify by using them. Do they work? Another kind of verification is with experiments involving others.

The broad similarity is that self-experimentation, at least mine, is a way of navigating a world with plenty of important cause-effect relationships I don’t know about (e.g., what makes my sleep better or worse). Rather than continually bumping into them.

2 Replies to “Human Sonar and Self-Experimentation”

  1. I’m reminded of John Boyd, the military theorist, who came up with an idea that we make decisions in “Observe-orient-decide-act” cycles. More or less, you view the world, come up with a mental model, decide what to do, and then act. You repeat the cycle over and over. If you can do these cycles quicker than your opponent, you get more info about the battlefield quicker, giving you an advantage. Self-experimenters seem to go through their OODA loop or decision cycle quicker than academic experimenters.

  2. I first read about that decades ago in a truely wonderful book, Listening in the Dark Acoustic Orientation in Bats and Men, by Donald Griffin. It’s surprisingly easy to do once your realize the signal is there, and yes making a bit of noise to can help. About half the blind people I’ve mentioned it to are aware of it. Griffin mentions one guy you could sense the parking meters along the street, but when they removed them leaving only the posts he couldn’t ‘see’ them anymore. The resolution of the signal being determined by the spread of your ears.

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