Hacking the Brain

11 April 2019

Are humans limited to the senses we’re born with? Or is it possible to hack the brain and create new senses? Even if we could, would we want more senses than we already have? This week we’re thinking about hacking the brain: perception beyond the five senses.

The idea of “hacking” the brain might sound a bit scary or sci-fi, but we’re not talking about brain chips or anything so invasive. What we are talking about is being able to add novel human senses, like a bat’s echolocation or a bird’s magnetoception (the ability to perceive magnetic fields). Wouldn’t that would be cool?

In a sense, we’ve already been hacking the brain in this way for a long time. Just think of the cane blind people use to see. It’s relatively simple technology and it doesn’t involve brain surgery to work, yet this is a simple way to hack the brain.

You might say that blind people don’t literally see with the cane. They navigate their environments with it, but that does not amount to seeing. The cane doesn’t give the blind person a sense perception they lack.

It’s true that a cane cannot endow a blind person with vision. However, we should not underestimate the power of the cane in the blind person’s hand. It’s more than just a mere navigation tool. As the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty said, the cane gets “incorporated” into the blind person’s body. It becomes an extension of their hand. Maybe they can’t see the ground but they can literally feel it with the cane! The blind person’s brain is hacked, without any brain implant. All they needed was a simple cane.

But how does this constitute "hacking the brain"? It's hacking because the brain takes information from the cane and integrates it so seamlessly into experience that the cane starts to feel like part of the body, part of the perceptual system. Now, this might not sound very novel or exciting, if this is all I mean by “hacking” the brain, but the example of the cane was just to illustrate how technologically simple and unobtrusive this kind of hacking can be. The cane does not exhaust the possibilities.

Brain hacking technology doesn’t have to be very advanced. However, think about what could be achieved with today’s sophisticated technology. More advanced brain hacking technology has already been developed, so this is not just the stuff of sci-fi. For example, there are smart vests that allow not only blind people to see but also deaf people to hear using vibrations on their skin. And the same technology can be utilized to add novel human senses, not just those that most humans already have.

But the question remains. Can blind people really see with this vibrating vest? Can deaf people really hear? I already conceded that the blind person with a cane doesn’t literally see, so why would it be any different with a vest?

The difference is the amount of information you can get from the vest versus the cane. The only information the cane gives is what is on the ground in front of the person. It can tell you if there are obstacles or steps or other changes on the surface. The vest, on the other hand, provides much richer information of the environment. It uses a camera to translate visual information into vibrations, which creates a complex picture of the environment. In the case of the normally sighted person using their eyes to see and the blind person using the vest to see, roughly the same visual information is sent to the brain to be processed.

Of course, the brain itself doesn’t see, but the organism—the person—embodied in the right way with the right kind of perceptual apparatus hooked up to the brain in the right way, is what sees. The brain doesn’t care how it gets that information, and that’s why it can be hacked in this way. The vest essentially becomes a whole new sensory organ and just as the cane becomes seamlessly incorporated into the blind person’s body, so too does the vest.

As a person is learning to use the technology, whether cane or vest, they are aware of it as something external and unintegrated. But fairly quickly the technology becomes incorporated and fades into the background of experience. It’s like when you put on a pair of glasses. At first you might feel different and aware of something propped on the end of your nose. But quickly you stop noticing the glasses and only notice what you can now see with their aid.

Given the amazing possibilities, this technology is a very exciting development. It means those who lost or never had particular human senses will now be able to have them without expensive, invasive surgeries like cochlear implants. And it also means we can add novel human senses we never even imagined possible.

Perhaps now we will finally be able to answer that vexing question famously posed by philosopher Thomas Nagel—what is it like to be a bat?

 

Comments (2)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 13, 2019 -- 9:20 AM

I have been watching human

I have been watching human development for a relatively short time. Probably only the last twenty-five to thirty years of my life. Most of us, sooner or later, read something about evolution---whether we agree with it, disagree, or are rabidly opposed to the entire 'notion'. I have remarked, in print and to friends, regarding what seems to me significant about modern humans. Children are developing, psychologically; emotionally; and consciously at earlier and earlier ages. 'Gifted' children are becoming more the norm than the exception, in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of talents. This must have roots in more than curricula and teaching techniques---a 'totality of circumstances' perhaps. If Jean Piaget were alive today, my guess is he would say, 'well, I was trying to tell you so'. Or, he may be just as puzzled as others among us. The evidence is, to me, pretty convincing, although my best points of reference are my own grandchildren. They are not like children of their age were fifty years ago. I have asked other people if they have noticed these changes, but, once again, the reference frame is skewed because most of the people I speak with are thirty to forty years my junior---they have a shorter experiential mode from which to form hypothesis or theory...they are so close to the forest, the trees are in camouflage. Or something like that. It is, I think, a braver, newer world---perhaps there WAS something to Stephen Jay Gould's notion of 'punctuated equilibrium' Yeah, I know-the whole thing is mostly laughed at now. But, Gould was an insightful character, in his own right-so who knows what HE would think (or have to say)-not so many years after his own untimely demise? There is something happening here---it is not fully clear what that is. Yet. If evolution, in se, evolves, just what would that mean? I am surprised (a little) that more thinkers and public intellectuals are not talking about that notion. I guess they do not wish to stick their feet in potentially hot water. I am not so fearful. Have no reason to be.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, April 22, 2019 -- 11:11 PM

I don't think we will ever be

I don't think we will ever be able to know what it is like to be a bat. I say that knowing full well there are human beings who echolocate - the most famous of them being James Holman. We already know the brain can manufacture senses from very rudimentary implants from the success of cochlear implants. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke has done the incredible in linking minds to motion outside the body. He has demonstrated a clear speed improvement in these scenarios that also demonstrates that such a body sense will not be merely extending but enhancing. If we could induce synesthesia if might count as another sense as well. Drugs can already do that somewhat, I suppose, though that is not, I think, what you are hacking at.

I don't know what it is like to be Laura, or Harold or Ken. How can we ever know these things?

Certainly, I would like to be a Mentat from Dune or better yet see the C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate like Roy Batty in Blade Runner. If we can build sensors we can wire them to our brains. I look forward to any sensation I can comprehend. But mostly I want comprehension. Wire me to that. Then I promise not to go bat crazy.

 
 
 
 

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