Using Sound to Navigate the World: Cynthia Moss Explains Echolocation

By Lauren Raziano, Multimedia Editor

As part of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) visiting scholarship program, Cynthia F. Moss, Ph.D., came to Manhattan College to present her research titled, “Using Sound to Navigate the world: Echolocation by Bats and Blind Humans.” 

President of PBK and director of environmental studies, Maria Maust-Mohl Ph.D, shared the history of PBK on campus.

“The Manhattan College chapter was established in 1971, over 50 years of history here and we are one of the 290 chapters at college campuses across the nation,” Maust-Mohl said. “Since 1956 the Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholars program has been offering undergraduates the opportunity to spend time with some of America’s most distinguished scholars. The purpose of the program is to contribute to the intellectual life of the campus by making possible an exchange of ideas between the visiting scholars and the resident faculty and students.” 

Maust-Mohl introduced Moss by listing her recent accolades, she received the Hartmann Prize in Auditory Neuroscience in 2017, the James McKeen Cattell award in 2018, and the Alexander von Humboldt research prize in 2019. 

Academically, Moss received a B.S. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Ph.D. from Brown University. She was a postdoctoral fellow in Tübingen, Germany and a research fellow at Brown University before joining the faculty at Harvard University in 1989.

“We are very pleased to have the opportunity to host Dr. Cynthis Moss this year,” Maust-Mohl said. “She visited two classes and participated in an interdisciplinary conversation with students and faculty in sound studies, environmental studies in psychology as well as this public lecture.”

Moss presented her lecture to over 100 students and faculty from departments in biology, psychology, music, and health sciences. 

“Thank you for the invitation to be here, it’s really an honor,” Moss said. “Today, I’ll give a little history on the discovery of echolocation and an overview of echolocation signals used by different species of bats as well as humans and then I’ll talk a bit about the reception and processing of sound. With a brief review of acoustics, particularly what makes certain signals well suited for echolocation and the advantages of particular high frequency sounds.” 

There is a common misconception that you can be, “As blind as a bat,” but Moss wants to state that there are bats that can see so well that they do not have to use echolocation. 

“First, bats are animals that rely on sound processing to navigate the environment,” Moss said. “There are actually over 1400 species of echolocating bats and about 1200 of those species use echolocation. So there are some bats that just rely on vision to navigate. No bats are actually blind, but they do differ in the extent to which they rely on their vision. The bats are also the only animal mammals that are capable of powered flight and specialized memory that stretches across the five fingers, known scientifically as Chiroptera.” 

Sponsored by the Music and Theatre Department and  the Psychology Department, Dr. Moss also gave a talk titled, “Pizza and Sound.” Brandon Zuniga, a senior sound studies major, was able to attend this discussion.

“I thought she gave an interesting look into echolocation,” Zungia wrote to The Quadrangle. “It’s cool to see how sound, besides in music, is used for various situations like helping bats understand their surroundings. What is even more fascinating is how some humans, mostly those blind, are learning what bats do to see and are implementing it into their life.”

Moss’s lecture covered topics such as how auditory processing systems can be used to navigate not only bats’ surroundings but also how blind humans can use their sensory system to track their environment.  Moss refers to the sounds blind humans make as a lingual tongue flick.

“Except for the frequency content, the echolocation signals of this bat species is actually similar to sounds used by blind people who use echolocation,” Moss said. “I like to refer to it here as a lingual tongue flick. Blind humans use echoes from their  “click sound” to perceive the presence of objects. Bats, for the most part, use their voices instead of their tongues to produce high frequency sounds that result in Echoes.”

As a sounds studies major, Zungia, appreciates how animal research can be applied to helping humans understand frequencies and sound perception. 

 “It is good to see how we, as a species, are finding new ways to improve our lives by improving our senses, like hearing, and as a musician and sound studies major it is great to see the work and research being done by people like Cynthia F. Moss,” Zungia wrote. 

Moss also included her research on behavioral studies of vocal feedback in different bats that highlighted the call frequency adjustments that some bats made in order to represent the world music sound and other adjustments in direction and timing that some species use. 

Senior biology student, Alyssa Kumar,  listened to Dr. Moss’s lecture during her Animal Physiology class. 

“As a biology major it was fascinating to see various biological concepts applied to such a fascinating experiment,” Kumar said. “The connections between bats and humans really opens a door that can aid blind people in navigating their world. The similarities in the ear structures and the techniques used for echolocation in humans was truly amazing to learn about and see.”

To keep up with Moss’s research she is currently a professor of psychology and brain at Johns Hopkins University, where she works with graduate and undergraduate students to continue researching spatial perception and sensory coding of natural stimuli.