Dress me slowly, I want to hear the colours

When I bought my first computer, an Apple II clone, the guy who sold it to me talked about the existence of mutants able to understand the sound of the data stored in magnetic tapes by simply playing the tape and hearing the noise. (It sounded like this.) Of course, I didn’t pay much attention to him and thought he was crazy (as you can imagine, someone in that business in the 80’s was a complete geek). However, I have never forgotten about it. The idea that our brain could be trained to recognise patterns like, for example, those sounds, was crazy but not completely crazy. In fact, the idea that we can develop some new senses is being tested today and, apparently, you need not be a mutant.

David Eagleman thinks that data streams will soon be fed directly into our brains, giving rise to a new “qualia” and enabling us to experience the world anew. There are two ways to do it.

The first is by implanting electrodes directly into the brain. This is the method used by Neil Harbisson, the first person in the world with an antenna implanted in his skull and legally recognised as a cyborg by a government. He was born with an extreme form of colour blindness that results in seeing in grey scale. His antenna sends audible vibrations in his skull to report information to him. This includes measurements of electromagnetic radiation, phone calls, music as well as video or images which are translated into audible vibrations. His WiFi-enabled antenna also allows him to receive signals and data from satellites. In a not so distant future, we will be able to stimulate the brain by small actuators in the blood stream or through nanobots in cells.

The second is to get signals to the brain non-invasively. We can use our current and perhaps under-exploited senses to do it. Think for example of a wristband with multiple vibratory motors that stimulate the skin around your wrist to represent a Twitter feed or stock market quotations. David Eagleman is co-founder and CEO of NeoSensory, a company which intends to translate the unhearable and unseeable into the realm of the felt. They are using wearable devices that deliver spatial patterns of vibration on the skin, such as a vest. You can have a feel of what they are trying to do in this TED talk

The reason this is possible is because the internal subjective experience of our senses –the qualia– is not univocally linked to the structure of the brain. Blind people can use the part of the brain we use to call the “visual cortex” for other senses like touch and hearing.

When looking at a rewired brain, it’s difficult to insist that there’s anything fundamentally visual about the “visual” cortex after all.

When we establish a clear mapping between the information and the touch, people can come to easily understand how to act on the new data – and this will eventually lead to entirely new qualia.

Synaesthesia is a beautiful word. For years, I used to think it belonged exclusively to the realm of literature, where it resided with metaphors, hyperboles and the like. Now, more and more I see it as our best hope to get rid of the tyranny of the smartphone.


Featured Image: KreativeHexenkueche

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