Navigating with Bicycle: The Blind Can Use Mindfulness

How well can the blind navigate around buildings? Can they do it on a bicycle? One man says yes, because he, who is blind can, by using a technique that bats use when they echolocate.

NPR logoThis is a comment on “Blindness No Obstacle To Those With Sharp Ears,” reported on All Things Considered 13 March 2011.  This post is a mixed article, using straight reporting and personal observations.


NPR reporter Guy Raz interviewed Daniel Kish, who could ride a bicycle even though he was blind, by using a method called echolocation. He calls it “flash sonar”. While he rides, he makes a series of clicking sounds with his tongue.  By listening closely to the echo of the sounds he makes that return to his ears, he can tell if there are any obstacles near him, where they are, and how big they are.  The technique is modeled on the one used by certain bats who use it during flights to navigate at night. He has learned to even be able to tell certain features of buildings around him, such as presence of balconies or columns. He has established a non-profit organization (World Access for the Blind) to teach blind children how to use this technique, mainly so that they can learn how to “reach out into the environment”, interact with it, and navigate as well as a sighted person.

Modified from What I Posted on NPR

We all probably use the sound in the streets in the same way unconsciously.  I mean, hearing is not telling us just the direction of sound but what is near the sound maker.  Daniel Kish is probably very much in touch with his unconscious brain (it happens when using mindfulness techniques), and probably became this way during his period of “reaching out to the surrounding environment”.  This group should be teaching blind people how to use muscle response/reflex testing (MRT, applied kinesiology) to ask questions about their environment and to reach awareness of unconscious sensory information more quickly.  It is extremely empowering.

I found that I could reproduce the clicking noise that Kish mentions, with a technique that I learned as a kid and use it to surprise my anatomy students when standing next to a mounted skeleton–they think they have heard teeth chattering when I create a stream of clicks.  [Sorry, can’t upload a sound file.]

Tongue flexion, extracted from Wikimedia, BigH22

I fold the tip of my tongue up and back so that the bottom side of the tip rests against the roof of the mouth (the shape of the tongue is as in the image, but the tongue is completely inside the mouth).  I slowly draw air inside, keeping the tip of the tongue alternately stiff, and then slightly less stiff against the roof of the mouth.  Learning how to click involves the alternation of stiffness levels as air moves in.  It is easy to get a train of clicks this way.  It is harder to get a clear single click, and probably is not as useful in that single click as Kish uses.  Little kids are always fascinated and promptly stick their fingers into my mouth to feel what my tongue is doing (and consequently, stopping my clicking).  The stream of clicks that I produce with my tongue can be used to scan a surrounding (although not nearly as effective for far, as for near objects) as well and may be an alternative method for echolocation.

How a muscle spindle fiber works, from Wikimedia. To see an animation of how it works, go to Arthur Prochazka's Lab.

I have studied Muscle Response/Reflex Testing (MRT) and have figured out how it works (see “MRT 1.0-a: How it Works”  and “MRT 1.0: Using MRT Muscle Reflex Testing”).  It relies heavily on the proprioceptors in muscle spindle fibers (type Ia and II fibers in the image).  All muscle types have them. However, skeletal muscle is the type used for MRT because it is voluntary with involuntary abilities. The involuntary abilities come from its reflex action, which ultimately comes from muscle spindle fibers. All of us have felt the tap of the doctor’s reflex hammer and the resulting involuntary knee jerk. This involuntary action is happening because of contraction of so-called voluntary muscle, but also includes activity in involuntary parts of the muscle, the spindle fibers. An important quality of any muscle is its ability to regulate force of contraction and relies heavily on its muscle spindle fibers during a contraction. However, spindle fibers do not directly contribute to the total force exerted by a muscle. Instead they respond to the fact of contraction or to the velocity of contraction by the muscle fibers surrounding them. All muscle has a small amount of tension in each muscle fiber (cell) all the time (muscle tone).  If proprioception is blocked at any place along the path from receptor in the muscle to final consciousness of it in area 5 of the neocortex, then the muscle fiber/whole muscle (depending upon the place in that path) fails to contract.  MRT uses this reflex by teaching the brain that “yes” means failure and “no” means no failure. The image above only shows the spinal cord’s role, not that of the brain.

The nervous system must be trained to understand what the circuits are in the brain every time you think to yourself the concepts of “yes” or “no” as answers to all decision-making (conscious or unconscious).  The nervous system can be trained in this fashion and explains all the unusual skills we see in people, from Michael Jordan’s motor skills to the ability of a person to lie down on a bed of nails, walk on glass or on a fiery surface.  It is not just a question of “mind over matter,” which doesn’t adequately describe the process at all. It is a question of being mindful, or aware of your own thoughts and the thinking process, and how to become aware of the thinking processes that the unconscious brain uses to control, anticipate and change the body’s physiological responses.  It is extremely helpful to a person wanting to recover from a medical condition, but, as I said, it takes enormous practice, an understanding of how the brain and the rest of the body works, and the ability to visualize the processes involved in the body.  The understanding of how the brain and body works can be acquired mostly in the questions you ask of the body, so it doesn’t take a PhD to learn it.

My Extended Comment

I have used mindfulness to get rid of PTSD and seriously bad toxins inside of me.  To train my nervous system (as Daniel Kish has done) I used MRT and really pushed the envelope in its application so that I could use it to get tissue repaired, to locate where in the brain circuits have not developed or were damaged by the emotional trauma I suffered early in life.  By helping the brain direct proper damage repair, program and execute activities that promote the movement of toxic chemicals out of the bones, figuring out how to form those circuits that did not form when they should have, I have been able to get rid of most panic attacks and toxins.

People missing at least one of their primary senses often overdevelop other senses to “fill in the gaps.” Many blind people develop a sense of air pressure that allows them to detect objects or people near to them when there are no other signals. Using sound as an echo-locating device, as Kish does in this report allows a blind person to combine this “pressure sense” with sound. To be able to develop skill in using these techniques a person has to exercise mindfulness. The good news: practice makes perfect.


Tongue flexion, extracted from Wikimedia, BigH22

How a muscle spindle fiber works, from Wikimedia. To see an animation of how it works, go to Arthur Prochazka’s Lab.

Helpful Website

Arthur Prochazka’s Lab

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