Extending the Human Sensorium: Part I Touching the Invisible

Touching the Invisible

A standard trope of super hero literature is extended sensory perception such as X-ray vision, telepathic sensory perception, super sensitive hearing, etc. But what is actually possible with sensory extension technologies remains largely uncharted and unknown. A report this week in Nature documents the work of Duke University researcher Miguel Nicolelis who’s team have implanted sensors that enable rats to “touch” and respond to infrared light.

While the ability to extend human vision into the infrared has existed for some time via the use of  prosthetic devices such as goggles, FLIR binoculars, and similar devices this is one of the first experiments to show that a direct sensory experience can be induced from a non-perceptible signal.

Also of importance, this experiment demonstrates a transformation of one sensory modality (infrared light) into another form; the rat experiences the light as a tactile phenomenon.

The rats in the experiment initially experience the light source as a tactile sensation and try to rub their whiskers when exposed to the infra-red light source. However, within weeks the rats were able to learn to differentiate the artificial infrared sense from actual tactile stimulation of their whiskers and used this new ability to find water in an apparently “dark” enclosure.

A variety of experiments have been performed with transforming visual sensation into tactile experience. The idea is notably of interest to the vision impaired and is known as sensory substitution. See http://gnowledge.org/~sanjay/Cogsci_Course/Week8/Extra/Sensory_substitution/Sensory_substitution_review.pdf

Seeing the Invisible

While currently in fairly crude form, neural implant technologies will soon allow us to integrate a variety of sensor measurements into our visual experiences. What does a cat look to a rat that can see infrared? Night vision and thermal imaging is perhaps one of the most obvious super senses people will want to add. 

Thermal imaging has a variety of applications including medical diagnosis and lie detection. We will literally be able to see the invisible by interfacing thermal imaging technology with our visual system. Imagine a doctor that can diagnose a condition by examining the patient’s body in the infrared.

Thermogram of lateral face recorded in 1995 with 320 × 240 pixels; (right) thermogram recorded in 2011 with a new 640 × 480 pixel infrared camera.

“Poker face” takes on a new meaning and entirely different level of difficulty playing against an opponent with thermal vision. See http://gajitz.com/liar-liar-infrared-light-headband-measures-thruthiness/

The effects of stress on hand thermograms (A) 10 min full normal recovery from 1 min immersion in water at 20 °C, (B) in a patient with Raynaud's phenomenon after 10 min (C), (D) Examples of hand arm vibration injury to certain fingers, showing delayed recovery after vibration and thermal stress have been applied. The affected fingers are cooler.

See http://iopscience.iop.org/0967-3334/33/3/R33/article 

But seeing infrared is just the start of what is possible here. Imagination not technology seems to be the primary limitation.

Future experiments can be expected that extend this research into other types of synesthetic sensory experiences. In the near term a surgical procedure could allow us to touch infrared and ultraviolet light, see sounds beyond the normal human hearing range of 20-20,000 Hz, smell electromagnetic waves, see through walls with RADAR “vision”, detect trace amounts of “odorless” chemicals, and more. We will be able to transform a variety of exotic sensor measurements into direct human sensory experience and we will leverage the full capability of the human mind to understand and interpret these new experiences.

To Be Continued in Part II Beyond the Five Senses… 




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