Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Closer, do wa do, let me emit clicking sounds in your ear

For Valentine’s Day, I received a chocolate bar that combines two of my passions: conservation and candy.

The Endangered Species Chocolate Company donates 10 percent of the profits from each bar of chocolate to help save a different endangered species. This was a dolphin bar, which came with delicious bits of cherry — not dolphin — and was sweetened with “unbleached water-filtered beet sugar.”

There is a little essay about the marvelous dolphin inside the wrapper. Dolphins use a sense called echolocation to identify their surroundings. The dolphin sends out clicking sounds that bounce off fish, rocks and Jacques Cousteau, and return to the dolphin’s jaw and ear bones. Through triangulation, the dolphin can pick up the general size, location and density of the object. Bats and whales also use echolocation.

And so do humans. We are able to tell where a sound is coming by calculating the distance between the near ear and the far ear. The ridges inside our ears help translate the sound waves into information the brain can understand. Apparently, if you place small bits of clay inside your ear — not in the canal, please — to change the shape, it will take a few hours for your brain to relearn the code. During that time you will not be able to accurately judge where sounds are coming from.

Some blind people have become so trained in human echolocation that they can ride a bike using echoes. After becoming attuned enough to the process of translating echoes, every footstep can yield information about the environment.

This reminds me of that moment in “The Matrix” where Joe Pantoliano is reading lines of code and “notices” an attractive woman. The difference is that Joey Pants had just become fully adapted to a process, which is more like fully learning a language, and echolocation involves becoming fully integrated with the environment, which is a beautiful idea if you think about it.

No comments: