You may have wondered, why can't humans see in the dark, or could we learn to see radiowaves etc. the short answer to why we don't have these sensory systems is because of the evolutionary cost compared with the very small amount of gain, if any. It would be incredibly energy and time consuming to evolve good enough night vision when we can just go to sleep at night and see during the day. So far our senses have served us well, but what if we could give ourselves new senses with the aid of technology? After all, we can invent new technology much much faster than mother nature can invent X-ray vision eyeballs!
Neuronal plasticity is the ability of neurones to change their connectivity with one another in order to gain new functions or to modify existing functions. This neural plasticity is essential for memory and learning and gives us the ability to perceive the world around us. By introducing a new input to the brain, you will trigger the process of neuronal plasticity as the brain tries to work out what this new information means and to do with it.
There have been numerous investigations into whether gaining or replacing senses is possible– unsurprisingly a lot of this research has been done by the US military. If you'd rather watch a video about this, David Eagleman's TED talk is excellent.
Check out David Eagleman's TED talk here
Blind people have been doing this for years with Braille, what starts out as just a series of bumps can quickly take on a new meaning as powerful words, just as when a sighted person learns to read. If you take this line of thought to the next level, you can teach a blind man to see without even bothering with eyes!
The FDA recently approved just such a device, called BrainPort. It uses the most sensitive part of our bodies – the tongue to decipher patterns of electrical impulses generated by the camera mounted in a pair of glasses. Within about a week, blind people can perceive shapes, size, distance and movement all through electrical impulses to the tongue.
|The Brian Port device and how it works|
Going back to Eagleman, his device is called VEST (Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer) and it essentially transforms the waveform of sounds into vibrations that you can feel on your body, which you can eventually learn to translate into experiences that were usually felt by the ears. Apparently it has been a success and work is underway to make this a viable replacement for human ears.
If you're looking for something similar that you can buy yourself, I recently stumbled across this
incredible ridiculous backpack with a subwoofer built in!
There are likely many more ways in which this "sensory substitution" could be used in the future that could be transformative for both the disabled and healthy populations. If you like you can share, tweet etc this post if you enjoyed it and spread the word! Feel free to follow this blog and leave a comment below as well.
Incognito: the secret lives of the brain, David Eagleman (2011)