Here is an excerpt from an article by Matthew Hutson that appeared in The Atlantic. To read the complete article, check out others, sign up for email alerts, and obtain subscription information, please click here.
Illustration Credit: Alvaro Dominguez
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The world we experience is not the real world. It’s a mental construction, filtered through our physical senses. Which raises the question: How would our world change if we had new and different senses? Could they expand our universe?
Technology has long been used to help people who have lost, or were born without, one of the five primary senses. More recently, researchers in the emerging field of “sensory enhancement” have begun developing tools to give people additional senses—ones that imitate those of other animals, or that add capabilities nature never imagined. Here’s how such devices could work, and how they might change what it means to be human.
1 | Hearing Pictures
For decades, some deaf people have worn cochlear implants, which use electrode arrays to stimulate the auditory nerve inside the ear. Researchers are working on other technologies that could restore sight or touch to those who lack it. For the blind, cameras could trigger electrodes on the retina, on the optic nerve, or in the brain. For the paralyzed or people with prosthetic limbs, pressure pads on real or robotic hands could send touch feedback to the brain or to nerves in the arm.
Autistic people might even gain a stronger social sense. Last year, MIT researchers revealed the EQ-Radio, a device that bounces signals off people to detect their heart rate and breathing patterns. A yet-to-be-invented device might infer a target’s mood from those data and convey it to an autistic user—or anyone who wants to improve their emotional intuition.
We can also substitute one sense for another. The brain is surprisingly adept at taking advantage of any pertinent information it receives, and can be trained to, for instance, “hear” images or “feel” sound. For the blind, a device called the BrainPort V100 connects a camera on a pair of glasses to a grid of electrodes on a person’s tongue. At first the effect just feels like tiny bubbles, but eventually users can learn to read stronger points of stimulation as bright pixels and weaker points as dark ones, and can form a mental picture.
Somewhat similarly, a Dutch device called the vOICe (“Oh I see!”) uses a camera to create a soundscape that the vision-impaired wearer hears through headphones. To the uninitiated it sounds like bursts of static, but with training, people can discern images. Every second or so, the sound pans from left to right, using frequency to indicate an object’s height (the taller the object, the higher the pitch) and volume to indicate its brightness.
For the deaf, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, has developed a vest that turns sound into a pattern of vibrations on the torso. With practice, people can learn to use it to interpret speech and other sounds.
2 | Borrowing From Nature
Scientists are also exploring ways to add senses found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. For instance, a handheld device called the Bottlenose, built by amateur biohackers, uses ultrasound to detect the distance of objects, then vibrates the user’s finger at different frequencies, giving him or her echolocation. Other devices provide the navigational sense of migratory birds: A company called feelSpace sells the naviBelt, a belt that points you in your desired direction by vibrating on your waist. Another company, Cyborg Nest, sells the North Sense, a device you can attach to your chest that vibrates when pointing north.
In the future, cochlear implants could be tuned to pick up really low frequencies, such as those used by elephants, or really high ones, such as those used by dolphins. Bionic eyes could be built to allow humans to see ultraviolet rays (as butterflies, reindeer, dogs, and other animals can) and infrared light (as certain snakes, fish, and mosquitoes can).
Some researchers think we may eventually install a port in our brains that would allow us to swap in different sensors when we need them. “Maybe there’s a Swiss Army Knife of sensors that you carry with you,” says Rajesh P. N. Rao, the director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. You might rely on a distance sensor when climbing a mountain, then plug in night vision after dark.
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Matthew Hutson is a science writer based in New York City. He is the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.