Have you ever wanted to be a bat?
We’re not talking batman here – I have no advice about how to deliver vigilante justice. No, we’re talking about proper bats – cute little things with wings that scream until they find food.
Whilst I also scream until I get fed, I don’t find myself thinking about bats all that often. And when I do, I don’t think I have too much in common with them.
It seems like I was wrong. Humans and bats have more in common than I suspected.
Screaming is a crude way of describing echo-location [being able to determine the location of things using reflected sound, a sort of natural radar used by bats and dolphins], but it gets the job done.
And echo-location, how bats “see”, can work for humans. A recent study funded by the Biological Research Council UK has found that by undertaking a 10 week course of 20, 3-hour sessions, humans are able to learn to use echo-location to navigate a maze. Which is pretty bonkers.
This article, unfortunately, cannot teach you how to echo-locate, and so you might well wonder what the point of this is?
As well as providing you with an interesting, if somewhat useless fact, what’s really fascinating about this study is the implications it has and what it tells us about the human brain. About your brain.
The core fact of this experiment is that within a short period of time – 60 hours – we’re able to learn, with a relative degree of skill, something that seems as utterly alien to the average person as echo-location. We’ve all heard urban myths about blind people being able to navigate by sounds – and what some blind people are actually able to do makes the myths seem tame – but it’s very easy for us to assume that these are just skills developed by necessity, that they’re only able to do it because they’re deprived of their sense of sight.
This study has proven that to be wrong, and I find that to be incredibly optimistic.
In the most basic sense, it’s a study that you need to be optimistic to agree to – otherwise you’re just agreeing to 60 hours of walking into walls in the dark, something I do at most nights at home trying to find the toilet.
But it’s more than just that.
It shows us that we can always learn new skills, and that our brain is capable of learning to do things that we wouldn’t even believe possible. It’s optimistic, and it shows what can happen when we embrace optimism and act on it; when we let go of our fears and begin to act on our hopes.
How easily achievable then, do our aims seem when compared to this? That algebraic equation that has plagued you, that run of notes in the middle of a song you’re learning, that clutch control which you’re sure you’ll never get right - whatever new skill it is that you’re trying to master - all of these suddenly seem far more attainable, far more achievable when compared against the fact that you have a brain capable of learning to use clicks to see in the dark.
Our brains are incredible machines - in fact, they’re better than any machine ever built. As the physicist Michio Kaku says, “The human brain has a hundred billion neurons, each neuron connected to ten thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complex object in the known universe.”
That’s worth letting sink in for a moment.
The most complex thing in the known universe, and you’ve got one entirely to yourself, dedicated to your personal goals. We need to do everything we can to harness our brains and make them work for us, to let them do the heavy lifting of life. “Optimism isn’t simply believing that everything is going to be alright: it’s believing that whatever happens, you can make the best of it.”
This is a mindset that I imagine was firmly illustrated by the participants in this experiment, clicking and squeaking to themselves as they stumbled around in the dark. It would’ve been easy for them to say, “this is pointless and stupid and someone’s going to get hurt, so I might as well just stop.”
But they didn’t.
They were optimistic. They had an optimistic mentality, embracing the mindset outlined in the quote above. They endured hardship [and harder walls] and they persevered. And they succeeded. They proved that humans are capable of becoming bats, and, more generally, they proved that humans - us - are capable of genuinely amazing things.
Guy Reynolds is a graduate of Cardiff University with a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Guy’s plan is to gain his doctorate and spend his life studying increasingly niche areas of history. Guy has lots of experience working with wild animals, from Falconry Centres to Wetherspoons, and he loves anything to do with books.
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