How to Train Your Senses Like Daredevil – Echolocation Training, Neuroplasticity and More

By on May 8, 2015

So I’ve been watching the new Daredevil and it’s so good I can’t even

And when the Bioneer gets into a TV series about a guy with heightened senses, there’s only one way that can end really…

With a post on heightened senses!

daredevil senses

And just FYI before we get into this, I’m going to be doing it in the normal Bioneer style. So that means no advice on eating lots of lutein to prevent macular degeneration. I’m interested in superhero style senses – if that’s possible – achieved through hard science. I’ve got my coffee and nowhere I need to be, so let’s go!

Oh and this is actually is a particularly interesting post for me too seeing as I’m anosmic – I have no sense of smell!

How Many Senses do We Have Anyway?

Let’s start by dispelling one myth right away: the idea that we only have 5 senses.

In fact, we have a lot more than that. Including:

  • Sight (opthalmoception)
  • Hearing (audioception)
  • Taste (gustaoception)
  • Smell (olfacoception)
  • Touch (tactioception)
  • Temperature (thermoception)
  • Kinesthetic awareness (proprioception)
  • Pain (nociception)
  • Balance (equilibrioception)
  • And a ton of different internal senses – such as the ability to detect salt and carbon dioxide concentrations in your blood

And actually, the precise definition of ‘senses’ is something that’s often debated – some people even suggest that our sense of time passing (chronoception) should be included. While there is no ‘organ’ responsible for chronoception, we do have a particular area of the brain responsible for it, which is pretty interesting.

Now that’s an awful lot to tackle in one article, so let’s assume I won’t manage to touch on all these here. Instead we’ll focus on just the ones that are interesting and potentially useful. I’ll mainly exclude proprioception seeing as that’s already been covered on this site and I may save balance for another day.

Otherwise, we’ll be looking at all the senses that can help you to be more like Daredevil. Except we’re going one further because you’ll still be able to see

“Marvel’s Daredevil”

How to Enhance Eyesight

The obvious place to start is with sight, as human beings are mainly visual creatures. How can you increase your eyesight to beyond 20/20?

FYI: 20/20 vision means ‘normal’ vision. In other words, it means that you see at 20 feet what a normal person should be able to see at 20 feet. 20/40 means your eyesight is half as good as normal (at a distance) whereas 20/10 means that you see twice as well as the average Joe (more detail at a further distance).

So what’s the best the human eye can see? Research currently suggests about 20/8 (1).

But discussing vision simply in terms of how far you can see is a little limited. Actually, the resolution of the eye varies across its surface area. We fixate using what’s called the fovea – the center of the eye which we use for focusing on things. This has the highest resolution of any part of the eye but if you’re interested in ninja reflexes, then you’d likely want to increase the resolution around the rest of the eye as well to improve your peripheral vision.

Then there’s tracking – the ability to follow an object with your eyes which comes into play big-time in sports and in martial arts. Then there’s focus; it’s not much good being able to see if you are oblivious to everything anyway. Night vision is definitely interesting too…

Let’s start with one thing at a time – visual acuity in general, the upper limit of which is dictated by the number of photoreceptors in the eye. Photoreceptors are neurons in the retina which convert light into biological signals that we can interpret essentially like a ‘pixel’. There are two main types – rods and cones – which are slightly different. Rods are narrower than cones and used for seeing at low light levels (night vision). Cones meanwhile are what we use to see in brighter light and are the only type capable of color vision. Whereas cones are more densely populated in the fovea, there are actually no rods in this area. The rods are at their most dense around the fovea and lessen as you get further out.

There’s also a blind spot where there are no rods or cones as this is where the optic nerve attaches.

We also have photosensitive ganglion cells, which are another type of photoreceptor concerned with modulating our circadian rhythms and pupillary reflex (in other words, helping our eyes and body to react to light physiologically).

So if we’re interested in improving our visual acuity, our peripheral vision or our night vision, we want to increase our rods and cones across the board.

How to Increase Your Photoreceptors for Enhanced Visual Acuity

Now, technically the retina is actually part of the brain and photoreceptors are neurons. If you read this site there’s a good chance you know about neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow new cells and alter connections between existing ones). So the question is, can you grow new photoreceptors? According to some research I managed to dig up, it seems that visual plasticity does exist (2) though the focus of research seems to be on regenerating photoreceptors and/or improving the function of existing ones. Either way, it seems there’s a certain amount of visual plasticity and stimulating neurons in the periphery of the vision with something as simple as software showing flashing lights has been shown to improve this.

peripheral vision

We also know that it’s possible to increase visual acuity with training and practice. In nature we’d have been constantly hiding in bushes, scanning the horizon for signs of distant movement that could be prey or predator and reacting accordingly. Today we tend to look at things that are right in-front of us and walk idly through city streets. Thus we don’t make full use of our potential visual acuity and as brain plasticity dictates – if you don’t use it, you lose it!

As it happens there is one thing that does closely mimic the way we would have used our eyes in the wild: playing computer games. Searching for enemy targets that might be very small on your TV screen actually tests the special resolution of your eye and as a result visual acuity improves. This isn’t a theory – kids who play lots of computer games have not only better visual acuity but also better contrast sensitivity, better movement detection and better special awareness. Playing first person shooter games in particular can actually increase your ability to perceive changes in shades of gray by as much as 58% (3). Wow right? If follows that sports would have a similar effect (and I imagine that juggling is a good way to practice eye tracking on your own).

And as we know, removing one sense makes us more sensitive to the others and this in turn makes us more likely to focus on the remaining senses, causing physical changes in the structure of the brain.

It also stands to reason then that practicing seeing in the dark should help you to see in the dark. And that practicing seeing images in your peripheral vision should help with… seeing images in your peripheral vision. If you’re not partial to video games, then challenge yourself to read small text in the distance occasionally as a game to pass time when you’re waiting in a line – really focus on making out the letters that are difficult to see. Maybe see if you can read distant number plates or text on the edge of books. If you’re serious about training, then do this regularly (you could set up your computer screen to show random text and sit far away from it).

I can really see software for this purpose being an exciting application of virtual reality. The game Eve-VR is already all about tracking bogeys with your eyes and head while in space dogfights.

valkyrie2

As for focus, this is more about mindfulness and reminding yourself to practice being observant and improving situational awareness. Try looking around right now at all the things you may not have noticed – better yet, try looking outside of your window and you’ll probably find there’s tons that you’ve missed in the past:

I’m looking into making an app that will help with this by providing reminders to focus and visual challenges.

Oh and a bunch of biohackers at ‘Science for the Masses’ have managed to enhance their night vision artificially and temporarily by dropping a substance called chlorin e6 into their conjunctival sacs with a micropipette. Do not try at home (but you can learn more here).

Focusing and Depth Perception

At the same time, if you want to enhance your ability to focus and to use your eyes in harmony (necessary for depth perception) then you can practice training the muscles with ‘pencil push ups’ and similar exercises. Here you take a pencil or a finger and move it to the nearest point where your vision starts to blur. Stop where the pencil/finger starts becoming two and then move it slowly backwards. As with any type of muscle training, you can perform sets and reps of this to improve. Or you could alternatively try just switching focus from things in the distance to things closer to you.

In theory if you do all these things, you should start being able to see in greater resolutions with better peripheral vision, night vision and depth perception. This would have crossover into everything from your ability to catch a ball, to your ability to spot someone in a crowd.

How to Enhance Hearing

I hate to say it but I’ve kind of already given away the punchline here.

Much like your eyesight can be improved through training and neuroplasticity, so too can your hearing. Simply practice using your hearing and it will get better.

What’s also amazing about hearing is how much we tend to ‘tune out’ when we’re focusing. An exercise you can do right now is to stop and listen. What do you hear? Traffic? A clock maybe? People walking outside? The neighbors watching TV? Your own breathing?

The more often you try this experiment, especially when out and about, the better you will become at paying attention to your hearing generally. You can practice this almost as a form of meditation, or while lying in bed at night before you go to sleep. It’s quite amazing how much you can discern about what’s going on around you.

Improving Sound Localization

As with sight though, there a lot more to hearing than just being able to detect faint noises. How about sound localization? AKA the ability to identify the source of a sound and where it’s coming from. This is accomplished by a little bit of math your brain performs to work out precisely how much of the sound is coming from one ear versus the other and how loud the sound is in general.

My friend who studied sound engineering at university actually had to train his sound localization by standing blindfolded in a circle of people and then identifying who was making a noise by pointing at them. He’d get spun around as well to make the task even more difficult.

You can train your brain to do this yourself though, simply by ‘imagining’ in your mind’s eye where sounds are coming from. Do this when being mindful of the sounds around you.

If you want to do it properly then you can try blindfolding yourself, spinning around on a swivel chair and then trying to work out which way you’re facing based on the sounds alone. And now you’re getting into the territory of being able to navigate with sound alone…

(If you imagine you’re going to practice the above regularly, you are most likely deluded)

Learning Echolocation

The most profound examples of brain plasticity as it relates to hearing are of course those seen in blind people who will often develop incredibly accurate hearing. In some rare cases, they can even develop what’s known as echolocation – the ability to find their way around by sonar.

This is actually the purpose of tapping the cane but in extreme cases, individuals like Ben Underwood have been able to achieve amazing echolocation by making a clicking noise with their mouths. What’s more, these individuals can actually do things like play football, navigate unknown rooms and even ride bikes. This is literally like being Daredevil.

This is possible largely due to brain plasticity but also some other interesting things…

For instance, brain scans show that those who are blind from birth have greater bimodal understanding – in other words, greater ability to unify information from across their senses via more crosstalk (4). This same increased cross talk is also found in those who are bilingual interestingly, as well as those who are ambidextrous and of course those who are synesthetic. In fact, the study referenced found that congenitally deaf adults would experience a ‘double flash’ visual illusion when touched on the face – which is essentially a type of synaesthesia (which is cross talk between senses).

cross modality

As I’ve already discussed, recent research suggests that synesthesia can be learned – so that’s yet more evidence that brain plasticity is sufficient for developing mad sensory skills.

We’re also helped out by a switch that flips in the brain as soon as you remove visual input. Thalamocortical inputs allow the auditory cortex of the brain to ‘borrow’ the abilities of the visual cortex. In other words, we immediately start to ‘see in sound’ and use sound to try and construct an environment.

On the other hand, in some cases sight can actually help us to hear better. This is the case for instance when something is very quiet but a little ‘visual assistant’ can alert us to the fact that there was a noise. Our brain can then ‘fill in the gaps’. Think ‘lip reading the world’.

The big question though: can sighted individuals learn echolocation? The answer? Yes! (5)

So how can you try and learn this yourself? I’ll likely cover this again in future but to begin with, you should start by focusing on your sound localization and getting used to the idea of sound coming from a source. Then start out with easy challenges – such as listening to echoes with your eyes closed in a room that echoes a lot. Try and identify the source of the echo and to imagine the distance of the wall. Alternatively, try clicking at a wall and moving gradually away and listening hard for changes in volume and pitch as you do – be careful not to unconsciously alter that pitch yourself.

You can also help yourself out by blowing against walls – it’s much easier to hear and even feel when your breath is being stopped by a wall right in front you. Basically – start easy and then get harder.

Then there’s hearing different pitches. Boy there’s a lot to take in here…

Improving Your Senses Across the Board

I’m not going to delve into great detail about enhancing your other senses here now because largely the rules remain the same – be more aware of your sensory inputs and train the senses with challenges.

You can do this with your sense of touch for instance. It’s been shown that cellists have much more sensitive finger tips due to brain plasticity and a resultant increase in the relevant areas of the motor cortex.

As for smell, you can practice being more aware again by focusing on the smells around you. At the same time, give yourself tests – such as identifying your food before looking at it. Now this isn’t going to help me whose anosmic but according to Wired you can improve your smell by sniffing sweat. Apparently, forcing rats to sniff sweat increases the number of receptors they have for smelling… Supplementing with zinc is also a good call.

On the subject of supplements, some nootropics have been said to heighten the senses. Piracetam is one of the substances that many users credit with heightening their senses but I would recommend against using nootropics that alter neurotransmitters – especially ones that have somewhat mysterious mechanisms of action. When I experimented with modafinil (don’t use that either) I did notice lights seeming brighter (like an Instagram filter). In both cases, this is likely to do with increased focus and awareness (as a result of heightened catecholamine/excitatory transmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine) which we already know can heighten our senses and even seem to slow down time. Now we’re getting back into ‘flow state’ territory and my answer to that is to use cognitive behavioral therapy (mindfulness)/meditation simply to force yourself to be more ‘engaged’ with what’s happening. Teach yourself that what is happening right now is super important.

Then again though, sometimes it does pay to tune things out and to focus singularly. That’s why we do it in the first after all… Our resources are limited.

Focus on cross modality on all senses. I’ve been trying to navigate the house blind (as you do sometimes of an evening) and rather than just focusing on sounds, I’ve also been noting the material underfoot (the floorboards are looser closer to the kitchen), the temperature (air comes in through the window) and more. Daredevil’s ‘world on fire’ description might actually be pretty accurate of how one would ‘see’ without vision.

Daredevil-World-on-Fire

In fact, this is one of the things that I’ve learned most throughout all of this – the distinction between your senses doesn’t have to be so strict. Senses make the most sense when we use them together to paint a picture of something – sound is more useful when we think of it in terms of space. Touch is more useful when combined with temperature and balance.

Try closing your eyes and navigating space using all your senses together and really focus on letting in as much sensory information as you can (I’m not responsible for any injuries you may incur doing this). Then try to exercise the mindfulness to do this while you’re walking with your eyes open.

Finally, I said I wasn’t going to be recommending vitamins and minerals for combating age-related sight and hearing loss, but seriously do eat a good balance of vitamins and minerals. There are just so many different nutrients that do wonders for all our senses and the more fruits and vegetables you’re eating, the more support those senses can have.

 

Whew, so there you go! There’s a lot to take in there but a good place to start might be with some sound localization training (that’s what I’ll be doing). I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of this as well as any progress you have with synesthesia training, echolocation, supplementation… the lot. I’ll be writing about all this more in future too as it’s pretty fascinating. So stay tuned and good luck!

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.