August 16, 2007


It's been three and a half days, and I still can't get the story out of my head.

In Elk Grove, a city here in the Sacramento Valley not too far from where I live, there is a middle school student named Ben Underwood who lost both of his eyes when he was three to a cancer called retinoblastoma. Since then, he has learned to find his way through the world by echolocation.

According to the article in the newspaper, "by clicking his tongue and creating sound waves, he can identify objects in his path and get around safely.... He is able to play basketball, skate, ride a bike, tap dance, swim and wrestle, among other things."

I find this story amazing on several levels. It's amazing that he has this ability and figured out how to use it. It's amazing that his mother let him figure it out, instead of hollaring at him to "stop that annoying clicking!" Most amazing of all, however, is what his life demonstrates about the human potential.

It's not a superpower that Ben has. It's not a magical ability. It's just that, somehow, he has trained his ears and his mind to recognize the most subtle of differences in sound waves. Anyone can close their eyes and start clicking, and notice the difference in sound that exists when, for example, there's a wall before them, and when there is a lot of open space. (I know this, because I've caught myself testing it out all week, closing my eyes and clicking when no one was around.)

However, to do what Ben does obviously required much honing of this ability. I doubt that echolocation would allow me to walk across the room without falling over the couch ... let alone, play basketball.

Scientists say we use only ten percent of our brain during our lifetime. That implies, to me at least, that there's 90 percent untapped potential. In my mind, I "know" that there are things I can and can't do: I can speak in front of crowds; I can't remember people's names; I can run three miles in about 25 minutes; I can't dance. The list goes on.

If I could tap into even a small fraction of that 90 percent, how many of my can'ts can I transform into cans? If I can raise that ten percent to 11 or 12 percent, what could I accomplish that my mind currently tells me is impossible?

Ben's story is not over. He continues to fight cancer -- and fight for his life. Doctors say his chances of being cured are not good.

Then again, they've never seen anyone use echolocation to get around.

Ben's website.

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