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Could a person develop the capacity of echolocation by himself if he is stuck in a lightless cave for a year or more?

I know that born blind people can develop echolocation by themselves and those who became because of a accident could acquire too that aptitude. Apparently the visual cortex readapt to perceive the surroundings trough the sens of hearing. Thus blind individual have to click their tongue to echolocate (source 1, source 2).

I also know that getting stuck in a pitch black environment for many days can result to vision loss. The eyes basically stretches themselves so much to get light that they basically self-destruct because of the strain imposed on themselves (source).

People with their sight intact can also develop echolocation through training.

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  • $\begingroup$ Depending on your definition of "or more", it would seem the answer is almost certainly "yes". I suppose references to support that are useful (thanks, Brad0440!), but IMHO the more interesting question here is how quickly someone could potentially learn. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Mar 9 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ Essential viewing youtube.com/results?search_query=blind+man+sees+by+clicking $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Mar 10 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, easily. But very , very poorly, as we lack the apparatus to generate, receive and process the signals adequately. Being myself utterly nearsighted and virtually blind without my glasses, I will often "click" to determine how far away the walls around me are, when I get up or stagger to the bathroom without glasses at night, etc. But my ability is just barely good enough to hear the difference between a door that is open and one that is closed. And if someone hung a towel over the door before closing it, i bump into the soundproofed thing! $\endgroup$ – PcMan Mar 12 at 6:51
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This study has some information which is probably useful to you: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315722/. I’ll describe the main points here and how they relate to your question.

As you mentioned in your question, some visually impaired people are able to learn echolocation to help orient themselves and recognise objects. It is also possible for sighted people to learn echolocation, so I’d say that it is within possibility that someone who is in complete darkness for an extended period could learn echolocation.

The study linked above found that the earlier in their life someone lost their sight, the better they were at using echolocation. They also found that some people were more receptive to learning echolocation. This is probably similar to how some people are better at learning how to play an instrument than others. So I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t make your character receptive to learning echolocation, although they would have to be very receptive (and determined) in order to teach themselves.

I will say that I’d find it unlikely that a person trapped in a lightless cave would choose to learn echolocation, unless it was a very large cave with lots of tunnels and they regularly explored new areas. If it was a small cave, it would be easier to simply memorise the layout. Or if they just really wanted to I guess. Or if they were hunting for food...

Also if your cave isn’t completely lightless, over a year or more their eyes would adapt to be able to see in very low light.

So overall, it is possible for a sighted person to learn to use echolocation, especially if ‘blinded’ by living in a lightless environment, but their ability and likelihood of learning will be dependent on the person and the need.

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Echolocation isn't a binary.

Given a very broad definition, when I was young I could do it--and I'm sighted. I simply had the advantage of knowing it was possible and seeing it in action. I was never very good, though--I could walk slowly and avoid walking into large non-fluffy objects (I wouldn't be aware of padded furniture) but that was about it. It wasn't really a useful skill. By adulthood I couldn't even do that, probably due to losing high frequency hearing.

Compare that to my mother (blind from infancy) as a young child--she could run and sense curbs well enough to avoid hitting them even without clicking. That sort of ability didn't persist into adulthood, though--by middle age she could have told you something about the room in the cave but that's about it (she would not have known what the ground was like beyond being able to say there was a dropoff) and in her later years she was no longer able to accurately walk across a room anymore--the normal high frequency hearing loss we suffer.

I don't think your guy in a cave is going to be able to get enough information from it for it to be worth bothering with. He's not going to have the proficiency of someone who learns it very young and even the person who learns it young isn't going to be good enough for it to be of much use.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your life experience is very informative, thank you ! $\endgroup$ – Timothé Lépine Mar 12 at 14:47
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So yes, you can develop echolocation after becoming permanently blind because you got stuck in the complete dark for many days or before while you had still vision. You could not learn it by yourself while in the wild, it take training to develop this capacity.

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