This year’s annual TED conference held in Vancouver, Canada, once again featured some of the great innovators and thinkers changing the world today. One of which was neuroscientist, David Eagleman, whose talk ‘Can we create senses for humans?’ outlines how humans are fairly limited in the application of our senses and hypothesizes an era when we can add ‘plug and play’ sensory devices to enhance our awareness of the world around us.
It’s a fascinating talk worth 20 mins of anyone’s time and below we’ve included some mind-blowing takeaways transcribed from Eagleman.
1. The human eye only sees one ten trillionth of lightwaves
“Even at that slice of reality that we call home we’re not seeing most of the action that’s going on. Take the colors of our world. These are lightwaves which are electromagnetic radiation that bounces off objects and hit specialized receptors in the back of our eyes. We’re not seeing all the waves that are out there. In fact what we see is less than one ten trillionth of what’s out there.
“You have radio waves, microwaves, X-rays and gamma rays passing through your body right now and you’re completely unaware of it because you don’t come with the proper biological receptors for picking it up. There are thousands of cell phone conversations passing through you right now and you’re utterly blind to it.”
2. Animals – including humans – have their own interpretation of reality that is limited by their senses
“Across the animal kingdom, different animals pick up different parts of reality. In the blind and deaf world of the tick important signals are temperature and butyric acid, in the world of the black ghost nightfish its sensory world is lavishly colored by electrical fields, and for the echolocating bat its reality is constructed out of air compression waves.
“That’s the slice of their ecosystem that they can pick up on and we have a word for this in science, it’s called the ‘umwelt’ which is the German word for ‘the surrounding world‘. Presumably every animal assumes that its umwelt is the entire objective reality out there because why would you ever stop to imagine that there is something beyond what we can sense.
“What we all do is accept reality as it’s presented to us.”
3. Technology will expand our umwelt
“We are firmly settled into our umwelt, but the question is do we have to be stuck there? As a neuroscientist I’m interested in the way that technology might expand our umwelt and how that’s going to change the experience of being human. We already know that we can marry our technology through our biology because there are hundreds of thousands of people walking around with artificial hearing and artificial vision.
“The brain is a general purpose computer device and it just takes in all the data and figures out what it’s going to do with it and that, I think, frees up Mother Nature to tinker around with different sorts of input channels.
“I use the Potato Head Model of Evolution name to emphasize that all these senses that we know and love like our eyes, ears and fingertips are merely plug and play devices. You stick them in and you’re good to go, and the brain figures out what to do with the data that comes in.
“When you look across the animal kingdom you find lots of peripheral devices. Snakes have heat pits to detect infrared, the ghost nightfish has electrode receptors, the star-nose mole has an appendage that has 22 fingers on it which it uses to feel around and constructs a 3-D model of the world, and many birds have magnetites so they can orient to the magnetic field of the planet.
“What this means is that nature doesn’t have to redesign the brain but all it has to worry about is designing new peripherals.”
4. Sounds turned into vibration can be interpreted by deaf people
“As I’m speaking the sound is getting captured by the tablet and translated into dynamic patterns of vibration to the vest and I’m feeling the sonic world around me. We’ve been testing this with deaf people and it turns out that after just a little bit of time, people can start feeling the language of the vest.
“The brain starts to unlock the pattern [of the vest vibrations] to figure out what the data mean. Our expectation is that after wearing it [the vest] for three months a user will have a direct perceptual experience of hearing, in the same way a blind person passes a finger over braille, the meaning comes directly off the page without any conscious intervention at all.”
5. As we move into the future we will increasingly choose our own peripheral devices
“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, or having 360 degree vision or seeing in infrared or ultraviolet.
“So they key is this: as we move into the future we will increasingly choose our own peripheral devices.
“We no longer have to wait for Mother Nature’s sensory gifts on her timescales but instead like any good parent, she’s given us the tools we need to go out and define our own trajectory.
“So the question now is: how do you want to go out and experience your universe?”
Watch the amazing presentation below.