IAS Distinguished Lecture

A Glimpse of the World through the Voice of a Bat


“What is it like to be a bat?” This is the title of a 1974 essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel on the subjective nature of consciousness. Nagel chose the bat for the title of his essay, because the sensory world of this animal is strikingly different from our own and serves to highlight the challenges of knowing the perceptual experiences of another creature. The inner worlds of animals are indeed difficult to access, but the bat presents a special opportunity to gain insight into its perception from detailed quantitative analysis of its echolocation behavior. Echolocating bats have evolved a spatial acoustic imaging system, which they exploit to forage, avoid obstacles and orient in the dark. Bats transmit brief, intense ultrasound signals and process information contained in returning echoes to determine the position, size and shape of reflecting objects. Central to the bat’s sonar imaging system is adaptive feedback between action and perception. Specifically, the bat adjusts the feature of its sonar signal duration, repetition rate, spectral content and beam aim in response to spatial information extracted from echoes. The sensorimotor feedback system contributes directly to the bat’s perception of objects in a natural sonar scene and provides researchers with a window to its inner world. In this lecture, the speaker will review a series of studies on the bat’s adaptive echolocation behaviors in a variety of tasks, which collectively provide some objective measures of what it is like to be an animal that senses the world through sound.


About the speaker

Prof. Cynthia Moss obtained her BS in Psychology with honors in Zoology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1979 and PhD in Experimental Psychology from Brown University in 1986. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tübingen (1985-1987) and a Research Fellow at Brown University (1987-1989) before accepting a faculty appointment at Harvard University, beginning in 1989. At Harvard, she received the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award (1992) and was named the Morris Kahn Associate Professor (1994). In 1995, she moved to the University of Maryland, where she was a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Systems Research until 2014. Then she joined Johns Hopkins University and is currently a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Neuroscience and Mechanical Engineering.

Prof. Moss’ research combines behavioral, neurobiological and computational studies to investigate scene perception, spatial attention, navigation and memory. She and her lab members have established methods to collect multi-channel wireless neural recordings from free-flying bats, which allows for the study of brain systems in animals engaged in natural behaviors. She has edited two books, Neuroethological Studies of Cognitive And Perceptual Processes (1996) and Echolocation in Bats and Dolphins (2002) and served as an Associate Editor of Behavioral Neuroscience, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America Express Letters and the Proceedings of the Royal Society, B.

Prof. Moss was elected as a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) in 2001, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012, and the International Society for Neuroethology in 2018. She is also a member of the Society for Neuroscience, the International Society for Neuroethology, and the Association for Research in Otolaryngology. She was awarded by ASA the Gallery of Acoustics Multimedia Presentation Prize in 2011 and the William and Christine Hartmann Prize in Auditory Neuroscience in 2017. In 2018, she received the Christopher Clavius Award and the James McKeen Cattell Award by the Association for Psychological Science.

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