“We cannot create observers by saying 'observe', but by giving them the power and the means for this observation, and these means are procured through education of the senses.”
In this article on human senses enhancement, we will answer the question of whether we can hack the human brain to enhance our five senses. For sci-fi lovers, a few scientific studies on human senses enhancement in disabilities will be discussed, as well as, latest discoveries on the topic.
3,2,1… Let’s go!
To understand this fabulous quote from Maria Montessori let’s start with a guessing game introducing you to this new article while continuing our series on Supernatural: No More Sci-Fi, Human Enhancement Is Now Real.
You possess five alleys that allow you to perceive, understand, create and interact with the environment around you. Right now, you probably rely on all of them. I bet you are reading this article while drinking a steaming cup of coffee. Maybe you are also listening to soft background music, and touching your chin because you are confused, as well as, curious about this game. These alleys are always active; indeed, they cannot be switched on or off. And most of the time you do not realize how important they are for your survival. Can you name them?
ViSiOn, TaStE, sMeLl, HeArInG, tOuCh. Funny, isn’t it?
Constructing the reality through human senses
From the moment we come to life, we are equipped with five senses: touch, smell, hearing, vision, and taste. Each sense is associated with a sensing organ that sends information to the brain in order to perceive, understand, experience, and interact with the world around us; an active process of constructing reality. In rare cases (e.g., around 4.4% percent of the population), individuals can be equipped with an additional perceptual capability called synesthesia; a neurological trait allowing them to experience cross-wired sensations (e.g., seeing sounds or feeling tastes). Nevertheless, neuroscientists affirmed that the brain receives a huge amount of sensory information per second than what it can actually process. Thus, sensory information is filtered out to be organized into patterns and categories; a process called perception.
Thanks to the ability of our brain to develop and change throughout life, scientists began to explore how they could use the brain’s neuroplasticity to enhance senses beyond human limits; indeed, what we experience is the product of our brain processes and the understanding of these mechanisms would be the key for augmenting them.
What is sensory enhancement?
If it’s true that the goal of sensory enhancement is to amplify the sensory capabilities beyond the human limit, the majority of technologies were developed with the purpose of overcoming disabilities. Indeed, this process regards anything that consists of improving the way in which humans naturally sense light, touch, sounds, smell, or taste (1). However, the sensory enhancement would also include the possibility to add an additional new sense (e.g., electroreception) or to modulate an existing one to perform different functions (e.g., echolocation).
Enhancing human senses: attempt to hack?
Overcoming silence and darkness is now possible thanks to scientific progress. In fact, innovative technologies to enhance senses were developed such as hearing aids, bionic eyes, and artificial noses.
Connected to an iPhone or a smart TV, Oticon Opn hearing aid works as a pair of earphones while listening to music, answering calls, or watching TV, as well as, to activate automated home services. The translation of sounds into vibrations was proposed by the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST) enabling deaf individuals to listen to sounds through the skin. Furthermore, a biosensor capable to mimic the human nose was developed to enhance the sense of smell. This artificial nose would be used in those patients with impaired olfaction.
In addition, sight loss was regained with a chip eye implant in the macula; a sophisticated bionic eye made of an electronic implant, glasses equipped with a camera, and a part in which the image received from the camera would be successively processed. Then, the camera sends the image to a chip implanted into the patient’s eye and would convert it into an image processed by the brain. A successful visual prosthetic, able to restore vision. Moreover, researchers from the University of Wisconsin developed a method in which blind patients were able to see through the tongue by means of electrical impulses, or the case of Neil Harbisson, the artist who was born with achromatopsia (i.e., color blindness,) able to hear colors throughout an implanted antenna in his skull.
A collaboration between the California Institute of Technology (USA) and the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich (Switzerland) developed an artificial skin to recover lost sensitivity in those patients who underwent an amputation. This special skin can also measure temperature changes; useful for physicians when detecting infections in wounds. Having a second skin was also found useful to protect the military from chemical and biological attacks; designed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the USA. Published in Brain Stimulation (2), going further than implementing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) the research team at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research demonstrated it was possible to elicit the sense of touch in fingertips by implementing minimally invasive implanted brain electrodes to stimulate sulcal areas; an incredible discovery that would improve the lives of patients with paralysis and peripheral neuropathies.
Moreover, against oral cancer, a team of dentists from the University of Okayama in Japan designed a movable tongue prosthesis to repair speaking in patients affected by the tumor. Besides the medical context, artificial synthetic tongues were proposed to innovate food and beverage industries while enhancing the sense of taste by comparing and measuring different flavors with high precision and way above human capabilities.
Lastly, supported by digital technology or genetic engineering, the interest in augmenting sensory functions was also proposed outside disabilities; thus, augmented reality and BCI technologies would be the way of giving superhuman powers and representing a step toward this futuristic scenario (1).
Future perspectives in the market
If you could have a magic wand, which superpower would you like to have? Enhancing human senses beyond normal would definitely modify the way we interact and perceive the environment around us. Innovative products are already proposed to be launched in the market.
Besides ultra-tech hearing aid to detect physical activities and falls, digital and multi-sensor contact lenses were designed by Google and Novartis to measure blood sugar levels. Moreover, smelling perfume online before buying it or Nivea’s nose application indicating how unpleasant your body odor is were also proposed. Sending hugs over distance while feeling strength, duration, skin warmth, touch location, or even the sender heart rate would be possible with Hug Shirts or feeling pressure and touch through newly developed artificial skins. Lastly, digital flavors were also created to enhance the consumer experience in the context of food development. In short, any augmented sense can be satisfied and more has yet to come on the market.
The brain is malleable to keep you surviving
For more insights, a video on the topic can be found below:
“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” (Immanuel Kant)
From senses to understanding to reason. Whether it is true the meaning of our existence relies on our senses, enhancing them would allow us to perceive and create incredible, unimaginable realities.
- Jebari K. (2015) Sensory Enhancement. In: Clausen J., Levy N. (eds) Handbook of Neuroethics. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4707-4_106.
- Chandrasekaran S., Bickel S., Herrero J. L., Kim J., Markowitz N., Espinal E., Bhagat N. A., Ramdeo R., Xu J., Glasser M. F., Bouton C. E., & Mehta, A. D. (2021). Evoking highly focal percepts in the fingertips through targeted stimulation of sulcal regions of the brain for sensory restoration. Brain Stimulation, 14, 1184-1196. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brs.2021.07.009
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