Humans have five senses – sight, touch, taste, smell and sound. But what if technology can allow us to experience these senses in a new way or even gain new senses?
Our five senses aren’t definitive
Since the 1960s, scientists have been exploring sensory substitution. This basically means feeding information to the brain via unusual sensory channels and letting the brain work out what to do with it.
The pioneering work of American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita was key to this. He created a chair that translated a video feed into vibrations on 400 small touchpads pressed against a person’s back. This allowed congenitally blind patients to detect faces, objects, and shadows.
Experiencing traditional senses in a non-traditional way
By discovering how to reroute our senses, Paul Bach-y-Rita paved the way for new inventions that are transforming how people with disabilities perceive the world.
With a bit of training, a hearing-impaired person can perceive sound via a Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST) which translates sounds into vibrations.
And blind people can “see” through electrical pulses from a grid on their tongue. The ability to ‘see’ through your tongue may sound crazy, but as neuroscientist David Eagleman explains: “All vision ever is, is electrochemical signals coursing around in your brain. Your brain doesn't know where the signals come from. It just figures out what to do with them.”
The trend of ‘hacking’ our senses
What started as a solution to medical problems has become a growing trend to expand and ‘hack’ our senses in order to experience a world beyond our human limitations.
Thanks to rapidly advancing technology and a deeper understanding of how our senses work, some really interesting living examples are emerging.
Artist Neil Harbisson was colour blind and could only see in greyscale. He implanted an antenna in his skull that translates colours into audible vibrations. Harbisson claims he experiences a form of synaesthesia where he ‘hears’ paintings. His ‘eyeborg’ allows him to hear a symphony of colours – even ones beyond the range of sight.
Harbisson explains: “I've been hearing colour all the time for eight years, since 2004, so I find it completely normal now to hear colour all the time. At the start, though, I had to memorise the names you give for each colour, so I had to memorise the notes, but after some time, all this information became a perception. I didn't have to think about the notes. And after some time, this perception became a feeling.”
His eyeborg has recently been upgraded, meaning his skull is now Bluetooth-enabled so he can connect to anywhere in the world.
And Harbisson’s not the only one experimenting with the human sensory experience.
Reading University professor Kevin Warwick had an electrode array directly interfaced with his nervous system to demonstrate using his brain to control a robotic arm. He also later hooked up the same implant to ultrasonic sensors which allowed him to ‘hear’ in ultrasound.
So what does the future look like?
From what’s been achieved already, the future looks full of possibilities for new sensory experiences.
In 2016, a Hack The Senses hackathon in London brought coders, neuroscientists and product designers together to engineer a new sense in just two days.
With such inventions like hair clip GPS and a system that interprets social media through our skin, it seems there’s a real appetite to expand our senses beyond the traditional five.
Many scientists believe we can keep pushing the boundaries of sensory substitutions and augmentation to really transform how we experience the world. As Eagleman says: “Just imagine an astronaut being able to feel the overall health of the International Space Station, or, having you feel the invisible states of your own health, like your blood sugar and the state of your microbiome?”
While Trace Dominguez from TestTube Plus suggests we can have unlimited senses: “If we’re defining a sense as consistent input that your brain can process, the sky is the limit. You can add any number of new processes that the brain because it’s plastic, will be able to take care of.”
It seems the possibilities are endless, but whether new senses will really enrich our lives, remains to be seen.