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A Seemingly Insane Idea That Actually Struck Gold

Could we create completely new senses unlike anything in human experience? What would it be like to experience such senses?
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Biomedical illustration of synesthesia when sensory information is scrambled, such as when people see words and numbers as colors or smell sounds.
Biomedical illustration of synesthesia when sensory information is scrambled, such as when people see words and numbers as colors or smell sounds.

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In April 2000, a bizarre research paper appeared in the pages of Nature, one of Britain's oldest and most venerable scientific journals. In the paper, Mriganka Sur and his colleagues claimed they'd achieved success in a Frankensteinian experiment: They'd surgically re-wired the visual nerves of young ferrets into regions of the animals' brains that usually process sound. As the ferrets matured, the paper said, their brains' audio regions gradually took on the appearance and function of brain areas that deal with vision -- even growing brand-new neural structures to process visual orientation. In other words, these ferrets' brains had apparently learned not only to "hear" light, but to generate visual perceptions of the sights their eyes "heard."

"Some scientists are going to have a hard time believing these experiments," said Dr. Jon Kaas, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, when The New York Times asked him what he thought of the paper. But as other labs began to repeat the experiment and verify that it worked as advertised, believe it they did -- and the research entered the scientific canon of Seemingly Insane Ideas That Actually Struck Gold.

Even so, it was clear from the start that this research raised a lot more questions than it answered. For instance, could we reroute our other senses under the right circumstances? Could we create completely new senses unlike anything in human experience? What would it be like to experience such senses? Would it even be possible to describe the sensations to someone who hadn't experienced them firsthand?

These questions might sound too far-out to serve as topics for serious scientific research -- but in recent years, they've been attracting attention from experimenters both inside and outside the neuroscience community. Even as neurologists like Oliver Sacks probe the sometimes-blurry boundaries between sight and sound, sensory hackers are turning themselves and each other into guinea pigs (or ferrets, if you like) and set off on adventures at the frontier of neo-sensory perception.

Toward the safer end of the sense-hacking spectrum, sonic glasses use echolocation technology to map a person's environment with sound waves, while vibrotactile displays can map those signals onto a grid of electrodes that stimulate various points on the touch-sensitive surface of a person's tongue. Devices like these are already gaining federal approval for clinical use -- but as I explain in my HuffPost article "Seeing Sound and Touching Data," the cutting edge of the field is even weirder. Some body-modification artists have surgically implanted electromagnets under their skin, giving them a tactile ability to sense electrical fields. And in February 2013, Duke University scientists demonstrated a brain implant that enables rats to "feel" infrared light with their sense of touch. In the near future, it seems, new senses may be just an outpatient procedure away.

Sensory expansion isn't just a recreational pursuit, though. For instance, imagine a surgeon who's able to sense cancer just by touching the spot where it's growing. This July, researchers unveiled a surgical knife that does just that - so why not give the doctor himself the ability to sense disease by touch? Imagine civilians and soldiers in war-torn areas who can "hear" armed bombs from hundreds of feet away without having to carry a single piece of equipment. Imagine being able to "see" how hot it is outside, or what chemicals are in the air, or what's hidden in your water.

These abilities sound almost like superpowers, but they're no more than slight refinements of technologies that are in use right now. Some are just conveniences; others could revolutionize our interactions with the world around us.

At the same time, though, digital marketing trends hint that scientists and body-hackers aren't the only ones who like to tinker with the human brain. One marketing firm has already sponsored the development of a device that can beam audio ads into your skull. If Google Glass and similar smart-goggle technologies catch on, augmented-reality video advertising is also likely on the horizon. The future of digital marketing is often hard to predict with any certainty -- but if current trends in online advertising serve as indicators of what's next, ad-blocking sensory implants may become a high priority for many of us in the near future.

As Neil Harbisson says in his TEDTalk, any device that's closely united with a human nervous system is no longer just a piece of electronic equipment -- it's become a new part of the human body, just as neuroscientists consider our eyes and eardrums to be parts of our brains. New senses aren't sci-fi -- they're here today, and our children may very well grow up with them as ordinary parts of life.

Just as our apparent lack of online secrecy sometimes worries our parents, digital senses will readjust our own personal boundaries in ways we can scarcely imagine today. But I, for one, already know I'll be far too curious to turn 'em down. How about you?

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