What if you can feel what you hear? What if your phone could pick up the sounds you hear, then transmit this to a vest that gives different pulsating feelings? Your brain then translates these pulses to sound signals and processes this in the same way as sound.
Our umwelt represents the interpretation of the world around us. We get this interpretation via peripheral senses such as sound, sight, taste, smell and touch. Over time, the human body has adapted to process sound via our organ of hearing, the cochlea. Furthermore our cochlea has developed to capture only a very small frequency region, primarily relevant to human speech. However there are many sounds in the environment which our receptors do not perceive, but they are still present. A good example is cats can hear up to 70kHz whereas humans are restricted to under 20kHz.
Through evolution we have come to receive sounds via our ears and these signals are passed through a specific pathway to the cortex in our brain. One significant success in hearing is the cochlear implant, which coverts sounds into electrical signals, which are then passed through to the brain via the auditory nerve. So for cochlear implant recipients, they are not hearing vibrations of sound, but electrical signals from the implant.
In this fascinating TED talk, Neuroscientist David Eagleman from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, asked what if we can change our umwelt? What if we can change the way we perceive the world. What if instead of using our ears to perceive sound, we could use the sensation of touch to feel sound. According to Eagleman, our brain figures out what to do with the information it receives, it doesn’t know or care where this information comes from. An example Eagleman gives is a blind person’s ability to read with touch. If a person can understand braille, then via touching the little bumps on the page, they can read words no differently from seeing the words on a page.
In some exciting research undertaken in his laboratory, Eagleman showed how after wearing a pulsating vest for two hours a day over four days, a profoundly deaf person was able to decipher simple words from the pulses he felt on his back.
Imagine if one day we can create new senses or widen the capacity of our existing senses. It seems our brain has the ability, we just need to find the key to unlock this.
To hear the TEX talk, click here.
A more specific write-up on the hearing vest in the Daily Nation.
To read more of David Eagleman’s publish work, click here.