What would it be like to see the world like a bat?
Bats are truly fascinating animals, and not only because they are the only mammals who have wings. Bats also have a very unique way of perceiving (seeing) their environment. Even though bats have perfectly good eyes that they use to navigate their surroundings during the daytime (nope, bats are not blind), they don’t actually rely on them when they are hunting for food. You see, bats are nocturnal, meaning that they spend most of their waking hours during the night, when their eyes can’t actually be of much use.
Instead, at night bats rely on what is called “echolocation” (“echo” meaning sound, and “location” meaning, you guessed it, location). That is to say, bats generate sounds, and use information about how those sounds echo (reflect) from different parts of the environment to understand what’s around them. Try to imagine how different an echo-located world would feel from the world that you and I live in.
As you are reading this blog post, your eyes are seeing (perceiving) a very specific part of your environment. Your eyes can only detect the light in the area that you are currently looking at.
And while you can probably see quite a bit more than the boundaries of your screen, your attention is most likely devoted to it, and you are likely not noticing much that is around it. So not only do your eyes respond to a small part of the environment around you, your brain, which is where all this visual information is being used, can only handle a small part of it.
Now compare this to how a bat sees the world at night:
The bat creates a sound wave, which is reflected from every surface in the environment that the sound wave hits. This means that the bat’s attention needs to be as broad as possible. Many bats prey on insects, so they have to be able to detect very specific kinds of echos from anywhere in the environment. Not only that, but they also have to be able to predict how to approach the prey, based only on how these echos change over time.
Can you imagine what it would be like to close your eyes, scream, and then use that information from reflected sound to catch a tiny insect? You might try, but I’d bet that you are at least struggling with it. In most likelihood, neither your senses nor your brain have ever been trained to echolocate
We access the world around us entirely through our senses, and our brain’s use of the information from those senses. Each living thing in the world is limited by what their senses can tell them about the world, and what their brain can do with that information.
Of course, for this story to be a properly scientific one, I will now take just a little bit more of your time to show how everything that I told you up until now is, at least sometimes, wrong. This is Daniel Kish, and he (sort of) sees the world like a bat:
And so while we are all limited by our sense and brains, those limits also don’t seem to be as carved in stone as we might think. To understand what is possible, all that we need to do is find out what would make it impossible, and then prod, poke, and investigate whether it may not be.
So don’t take it from me – instead, go on ahead and prod away! Challenge the limits of your own perception.