Hacking the senses

An article in this month’s Wired looks at how new technology is being developed that crosses over sensory information from one mode to another, to compensate for impairment or disability – or even to extend the body to include completely new senses.

We humans get just the five. But why? Can our senses be modified? Expanded? Given the right prosthetics, could we feel electromagnetic fields or hear ultrasound? The answers to these questions, according to researchers at a handful of labs around the world, appear to be yes.

It turns out that the tricky bit isn’t the sensing. The world is full of gadgets that detect things humans cannot. The hard part is processing the input. Neuroscientists don’t know enough about how the brain interprets data. The science of plugging things directly into the brain ‚Äî artificial retinas or cochlear implants ‚Äî remains primitive.

So here’s the solution: Figure out how to change the sensory data you want ‚Äî the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared ‚Äî into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it’s time to build them.

The article describes how researchers have built devices to provide pigeon-style magnetoreceptors, so the wearer feels where they are pointing in relation to north, and devices that translate visual information into touch sensation on the tongue.

We previously covered on Mind Hacks how some people have implanted magnets in their fingers to get a sense of touch for magnetic fields.

Link to Wired article ‘Mixed Feelings’.

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