David Eagleman - Can We Create New Senses for Humans?

It's been a source of questions, awe and insight among philosophers for a long time to consider the fact that all mental representations are ultimately interpretations of electrical signals traveling through the brain. Yes, we may ordinarily think the original input is based on sounds and colors, though this itself is already an interpretation of the nature of such signals, but even if we ignore that question, the information relayed from the sense organs to the brain is ultimately digital electrical signals, the equivalent of 1's and 0's, switching on and off.

If all the information the brain ever receives is in the form of such digital discrete characters, how does the brain 'know' to interpret some as colors, others as sounds and others as scents? Sometimes when asking my students to define reality, I invite them to imagine what it might be like to cross-wire these sense modalities, such that you might take the optic nerves, say, and plug them into the auditory cortex, and so on. What would our picture of 'reality' 'look' (sound?) like then? And what might that suggest about the nature of perception and its relationship to reality?

Well, as it turns out, neuroscientist David Eagleman (who has been featured in this blog before discussing questions of law and responsibility in view of our growing understanding of consciousness and free will) has decided to take this sort of exercise from the merely hypothetical to the applied, showing that taking advantage of the software already running in our brains, it might be possible to produce new modalities of sense experience, and come to radically enhance our understanding of the natural, social and technological worlds. In fact, as he shows in this fascinating TEDTalk presentation, we already have a proof of principle. The only question left is how far we can go...




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