Can we create new senses for humans? | David Eagleman


We are built out of very small stuff, and we are embedded in
a very large cosmos, and the fact is that we are not
very good at understanding reality at either of those scales, and that’s because our brains haven’t evolved to understand
the world at that scale. Instead, we’re trapped on this
very thin slice of perception right in the middle. But it gets strange, because even at
that slice of reality that we call home, we’re not seeing most
of the action that’s going on. So take the colors of our world. This is light waves, electromagnetic
radiation that bounces off objects and it hits specialized receptors
in the back of our eyes. But we’re not seeing
all the waves out there. In fact, what we see is less than a 10 trillionth
of what’s out there. So you have radio waves and microwaves and X-rays and gamma rays
passing through your body right now and you’re completely unaware of it, because you don’t come with
the proper biological receptors for picking it up. There are thousands
of cell phone conversations passing through you right now, and you’re utterly blind to it. Now, it’s not that these things
are inherently unseeable. Snakes include some infrared
in their reality, and honeybees include ultraviolet
in their view of the world, and of course we build machines
in the dashboards of our cars to pick up on signals
in the radio frequency range, and we built machines in hospitals
to pick up on the X-ray range. But you can’t sense
any of those by yourself, at least not yet, because you don’t come equipped
with the proper sensors. Now, what this means is that
our experience of reality is constrained by our biology, and that goes against
the common sense notion that our eyes and our ears
and our fingertips are just picking up
the objective reality that’s out there. Instead, our brains are sampling
just a little bit of the world. Now, across the animal kingdom, different animals pick up
on different parts of reality. So in the blind
and deaf world of the tick, the important signals
are temperature and butyric acid; in the world of the black ghost knifefish, its sensory world is lavishly colored
by electrical fields; and for the echolocating bat, its reality is constructed
out of air compression waves. That’s the slice of their ecosystem
that they can pick up on, and we have a word for this in science. It’s called the umwelt, which is the German word
for the surrounding world. Now, presumably, every animal assumes that its umwelt is the entire
objective reality out there, because why would you ever stop to imagine that there’s something beyond
what we can sense. Instead, what we all do
is we accept reality as it’s presented to us. Let’s do a consciousness-raiser on this. Imagine that you are a bloodhound dog. Your whole world is about smelling. You’ve got a long snout that has
200 million scent receptors in it, and you have wet nostrils
that attract and trap scent molecules, and your nostrils even have slits
so you can take big nosefuls of air. Everything is about smell for you. So one day, you stop in your tracks
with a revelation. You look at your human owner
and you think, “What is it like to have the pitiful,
impoverished nose of a human? (Laughter) What is it like when you take
a feeble little noseful of air? How can you not know that there’s
a cat 100 yards away, or that your neighbor was on
this very spot six hours ago?” (Laughter) So because we’re humans, we’ve never experienced
that world of smell, so we don’t miss it, because we are firmly settled
into our umwelt. But the question is,
do we have to be stuck there? So as a neuroscientist, I’m interested
in the way that technology might expand our umwelt, and how that’s going to change
the experience of being human. So we already know that we can marry
our technology to our biology, because there are hundreds of thousands
of people walking around with artificial hearing
and artificial vision. So the way this works is, you take
a microphone and you digitize the signal, and you put an electrode strip
directly into the inner ear. Or, with the retinal implant,
you take a camera and you digitize the signal,
and then you plug an electrode grid directly into the optic nerve. And as recently as 15 years ago, there were a lot of scientists who thought
these technologies wouldn’t work. Why? It’s because these technologies
speak the language of Silicon Valley, and it’s not exactly the same dialect
as our natural biological sense organs. But the fact is that it works; the brain figures out
how to use the signals just fine. Now, how do we understand that? Well, here’s the big secret: Your brain is not hearing
or seeing any of this. Your brain is locked in a vault of silence
and darkness inside your skull. All it ever sees are
electrochemical signals that come in along different data cables, and this is all it has to work with,
and nothing more. Now, amazingly, the brain is really good
at taking in these signals and extracting patterns
and assigning meaning, so that it takes this inner cosmos
and puts together a story of this, your subjective world. But here’s the key point: Your brain doesn’t know,
and it doesn’t care, where it gets the data from. Whatever information comes in,
it just figures out what to do with it. And this is a very efficient
kind of machine. It’s essentially a general purpose
computing device, and it just takes in everything and figures out
what it’s going to do with it, and that, I think, frees up Mother Nature to tinker around with different
sorts of input channels. So I call this the P.H.
model of evolution, and I don’t want to get
too technical here, but P.H. stands for Potato Head, and I use this name to emphasize
that all these sensors that we know and love, like our eyes
and our ears and our fingertips, these are merely peripheral
plug-and-play devices: You stick them in, and you’re good to go. The brain figures out what to do
with the data that comes in. And when you look across
the animal kingdom, you find lots of peripheral devices. So snakes have heat pits
with which to detect infrared, and the ghost knifefish has
electroreceptors, and the star-nosed mole has this appendage with 22 fingers on it with which it feels around and constructs
a 3D model of the world, and many birds have magnetite
so they can orient to the magnetic field of the planet. So what this means is that
nature doesn’t have to continually redesign the brain. Instead, with the principles
of brain operation established, all nature has to worry about
is designing new peripherals. Okay. So what this means is this: The lesson that surfaces is that there’s nothing
really special or fundamental about the biology that we
come to the table with. It’s just what we have inherited from a complex road of evolution. But it’s not what we have to stick with, and our best proof of principle of this comes from what’s called
sensory substitution. And that refers to feeding
information into the brain via unusual sensory channels, and the brain just figures out
what to do with it. Now, that might sound speculative, but the first paper demonstrating this was
published in the journal Nature in 1969. So a scientist named Paul Bach-y-Rita put blind people
in a modified dental chair, and he set up a video feed, and he put something
in front of the camera, and then you would feel that poked into your back
with a grid of solenoids. So if you wiggle a coffee cup
in front of the camera, you’re feeling that in your back, and amazingly, blind people
got pretty good at being able to determine
what was in front of the camera just by feeling it
in the small of their back. Now, there have been many
modern incarnations of this. The sonic glasses take a video feed
right in front of you and turn that into a sonic landscape, so as things move around,
and get closer and farther, it sounds like “Bzz, bzz, bzz.” It sounds like a cacophony, but after several weeks, blind people
start getting pretty good at understanding what’s in front of them just based on what they’re hearing. And it doesn’t have to be
through the ears: this system uses an electrotactile grid
on the forehead, so whatever’s in front of the video feed,
you’re feeling it on your forehead. Why the forehead? Because you’re not
using it for much else. The most modern incarnation
is called the brainport, and this is a little electrogrid
that sits on your tongue, and the video feed gets turned into
these little electrotactile signals, and blind people get so good at using this
that they can throw a ball into a basket, or they can navigate
complex obstacle courses. They can come to see through their tongue. Now, that sounds completely insane, right? But remember, all vision ever is is electrochemical signals
coursing around in your brain. Your brain doesn’t know
where the signals come from. It just figures out what to do with them. So my interest in my lab
is sensory substitution for the deaf, and this is a project I’ve undertaken with a graduate student
in my lab, Scott Novich, who is spearheading this for his thesis. And here is what we wanted to do: we wanted to make it so that
sound from the world gets converted in some way so that a deaf person
can understand what is being said. And we wanted to do this, given the power
and ubiquity of portable computing, we wanted to make sure that this
would run on cell phones and tablets, and also we wanted
to make this a wearable, something that you could wear
under your clothing. So here’s the concept. So as I’m speaking, my sound
is getting captured by the tablet, and then it’s getting mapped onto a vest
that’s covered in vibratory motors, just like the motors in your cell phone. So as I’m speaking, the sound is getting translated
to a pattern of vibration on the vest. Now, this is not just conceptual: this tablet is transmitting Bluetooth,
and I’m wearing the vest right now. So as I’m speaking — (Applause) — the sound is getting translated
into dynamic patterns of vibration. I’m feeling the sonic world around me. So, we’ve been testing this
with deaf people now, and it turns out that after
just a little bit of time, people can start feeling,
they can start understanding the language of the vest. So this is Jonathan. He’s 37 years old.
He has a master’s degree. He was born profoundly deaf, which means that there’s a part
of his umwelt that’s unavailable to him. So we had Jonathan train with the vest
for four days, two hours a day, and here he is on the fifth day. Scott Novich: You. David Eagleman: So Scott says a word,
Jonathan feels it on the vest, and he writes it on the board. SN: Where. Where. DE: Jonathan is able to translate
this complicated pattern of vibrations into an understanding
of what’s being said. SN: Touch. Touch. DE: Now, he’s not doing this — (Applause) — Jonathan is not doing this consciously,
because the patterns are too complicated, but his brain is starting to unlock
the pattern that allows it to figure out what the data mean, and our expectation is that,
after wearing this for about three months, he will have a direct
perceptual experience of hearing in the same way that when a blind person
passes a finger over braille, the meaning comes directly off the page
without any conscious intervention at all. Now, this technology has the potential
to be a game-changer, because the only other solution
for deafness is a cochlear implant, and that requires an invasive surgery. And this can be built for 40 times cheaper
than a cochlear implant, which opens up this technology globally,
even for the poorest countries. Now, we’ve been very encouraged
by our results with sensory substitution, but what we’ve been thinking a lot about
is sensory addition. How could we use a technology like this
to add a completely new kind of sense, to expand the human umvelt? For example, could we feed
real-time data from the Internet directly into somebody’s brain, and can they develop a direct
perceptual experience? So here’s an experiment
we’re doing in the lab. A subject is feeling a real-time
streaming feed from the Net of data for five seconds. Then, two buttons appear,
and he has to make a choice. He doesn’t know what’s going on. He makes a choice,
and he gets feedback after one second. Now, here’s the thing: The subject has no idea
what all the patterns mean, but we’re seeing if he gets better
at figuring out which button to press. He doesn’t know that what we’re feeding is real-time data from the stock market, and he’s making buy and sell decisions. (Laughter) And the feedback is telling him
whether he did the right thing or not. And what we’re seeing is,
can we expand the human umvelt so that he comes to have,
after several weeks, a direct perceptual experience
of the economic movements of the planet. So we’ll report on that later
to see how well this goes. (Laughter) Here’s another thing we’re doing: During the talks this morning,
we’ve been automatically scraping Twitter for the TED2015 hashtag, and we’ve been doing
an automated sentiment analysis, which means, are people using positive
words or negative words or neutral? And while this has been going on, I have been feeling this, and so I am plugged in
to the aggregate emotion of thousands of people in real time, and that’s a new kind of human experience,
because now I can know how everyone’s doing
and how much you’re loving this. (Laughter) (Applause) It’s a bigger experience
than a human can normally have. We’re also expanding the umvelt of pilots. So in this case, the vest is streaming
nine different measures from this quadcopter, so pitch and yaw and roll
and orientation and heading, and that improves
this pilot’s ability to fly it. It’s essentially like he’s extending
his skin up there, far away. And that’s just the beginning. What we’re envisioning is taking
a modern cockpit full of gauges and instead of trying
to read the whole thing, you feel it. We live in a world of information now, and there is a difference
between accessing big data and experiencing it. So I think there’s really no end
to the possibilities on the horizon for human expansion. Just imagine an astronaut
being able to feel the overall health
of the International Space Station, or, for that matter, having you feel
the invisible states of your own health, like your blood sugar
and the state of your microbiome, or having 360-degree vision
or seeing in infrared or ultraviolet. So the key is this:
As we move into the future, we’re going to increasingly be able
to choose our own peripheral devices. We no longer have to wait
for Mother Nature’s sensory gifts on her timescales, but instead, like any good parent,
she’s given us the tools that we need to go out and define our own trajectory. So the question now is, how do you want to go out
and experience your universe? Thank you. (Applause) Chris Anderson: Can you feel it?
DE: Yeah. Actually, this was the first time
I felt applause on the vest. It’s nice. It’s like a massage. (Laughter) CA: Twitter’s going crazy.
Twitter’s going mad. So that stock market experiment. This could be the first experiment
that secures its funding forevermore, right, if successful? DE: Well, that’s right, I wouldn’t
have to write to NIH anymore. CA: Well look, just to be
skeptical for a minute, I mean, this is amazing,
but isn’t most of the evidence so far that sensory substitution works, not necessarily
that sensory addition works? I mean, isn’t it possible that the
blind person can see through their tongue because the visual cortex is still there,
ready to process, and that that is needed as part of it? DE: That’s a great question.
We actually have no idea what the theoretical limits are of what
kind of data the brain can take in. The general story, though,
is that it’s extraordinarily flexible. So when a person goes blind,
what we used to call their visual cortex gets taken over by other things,
by touch, by hearing, by vocabulary. So what that tells us is that
the cortex is kind of a one-trick pony. It just runs certain kinds
of computations on things. And when we look around
at things like braille, for example, people are getting information
through bumps on their fingers. So I don’t think we have any reason
to think there’s a theoretical limit that we know the edge of. CA: If this checks out,
you’re going to be deluged. There are so many
possible applications for this. Are you ready for this? What are you most
excited about, the direction it might go? DE: I mean, I think there’s
a lot of applications here. In terms of beyond sensory substitution,
the things I started mentioning about astronauts on the space station,
they spend a lot of their time monitoring things, and they could instead
just get what’s going on, because what this is really good for
is multidimensional data. The key is this: Our visual systems
are good at detecting blobs and edges, but they’re really bad
at what our world has become, which is screens
with lots and lots of data. We have to crawl that
with our attentional systems. So this is a way of just
feeling the state of something, just like the way you know the state
of your body as you’re standing around. So I think heavy machinery, safety,
feeling the state of a factory, of your equipment, that’s one place
it’ll go right away. CA: David Eagleman, that was one
mind-blowing talk. Thank you very much. DE: Thank you, Chris.
(Applause)




Comments
  1. can we create? there re already humans who were born with other sensens naturally. Some can see visual colors from noices, tones. For me i would call this another sense. Cause naturally sound (waves) have to travel to you, into your ear and only until than u realize the waves (Sound). People who have those kind of senses were seeing waves, sound out of the distance and i Color were different depending on the note (wave)

  2. What about the fact that humans are also emotional and sensitive to bad news and happenings. As these devices let them know some very important information about their body and their surrounding, wouldn't they be more fearful and tensed? Being informed more than enough about our body and our surrounding can cause anxiety and depression, which can lead us to heart attacks and brain strokes if the devices are used for a prolonged period. Some important information can affect our feelings, perceptions, reasonings, decisions, ability to control our body and other things. We shouldn't forget that although our brain is a very powerful processor, it can be overwhelmed in the midst of critical situations.

  3. This guy confirmed i was not crazy (or not 100%).

    I was convinced that some of the songs that appear in my head out of nowhere was my brain being able to unconsciuly deicifer partial FM frequencies.

  4. TECHNOLOGY AUGMENTATION OF HUMANS …LIMITED ONLY BY TECHNOLOGY CAPABILITIES… THE QUESTION IS, WHAT DO WE WANT TO "SENSE" THAT WE CURRENTLY CANNOT WITH ONLY "5" … OR PERHAPS AUGMENT THE SENSES HUMANITY HAS …

  5. One area we will confirm is the processing limits humans face. Some data suggests our slice of perception is presently rather necked down by the brain itself to keep inputs comprehensible at certain levels. Squelch if you will.

  6. Seems like I can't listen to a TED talk without hearing the word 'Evolve' or 'Evolution'. Must be the buzzword for TED as 'Experience' is to E3.

  7. The part about that your senses are not really you, that the brain lives in darkness – is very disconcerting

  8. Now we make a vest to detect lie and how much the people you're talking to you like you.
    Next year : New vest to give a fake feed back to the previous vest.

  9. I want the 360 vision, being able to only see with my eyes but feel when someone is coming is just asking to have some badass moments.

  10. Now answer this: Even my perceptions are fully functioning, how come I don't understand other languages by simly listening to them over long periods of time without being taught anything?

  11. 15:15 yeah but that's what machines are for. You can give that task to a program and do the same thing with neuor networks.

  12. Imagine in the future when we can see all these Waves or that some like Aliens find us and be like ppfft how can they live without this

  13. but you're not creating new senses , you just experience them trough different sensors , which in this video were tactile . No?…

  14. This is amazing, but i'm really curious on if we can send this information directly to the brain so that we don't need to use the senses we have to gain more.

    On a side note do you think its possible to create a virtual world and send all that information to the brain directly so some one can experience it without actually being there.

  15. 7:56 "all nature worry about is designing peripherals" … so David creating tech stuff is "nature" or natural"?? Errr….

  16. The only problem with stuff like this, is nothing ever happens with it long term.
    I want too see this go mainstream.

  17. Wow, sad I didn't hear about this sooner. It's an amazing idea and concepts and I'm surprised it hasn't yet come further to public attention as a way into transhumanism. It's all the more interesting that it will give rise to many more concepts and sets a foot into being able to control our personnal sensory pespectives.

  18. As someone who is really sensitive to smell and sound, temperature, air vibrations, pressure, I can say – it will only add disturbances to your life.
    I can sense the smell from far and I can even sense the smell of someone been in the room before. Smell staying for me much longer than any other people can smell it. If there is food cooked, I can smell that for the next 3-4 days, even after all the food was finished the same day.
    I can smell that food in the pots even after they were washed,
    I can hear the sounds like whisper from different room and other not loud noises and it is very disturbing because I cannot sleep or focus on something.
    Change in air pressure, vibration gives me instant migraine.
    I also get swelling if the air pressure drops.
    It’s a struggle
    People need to understand the more senses you have, the more information you’ll get and your brain is forced to interpret it. Even if it’s useless for you. You cannot block it.

  19. The issue really is limitation of the mind, shocking I know but when you think about it if you need to see someone's house address better do you turn up the volume of your radio? If you trying to balance on one foot does it make it easier to see a spinning room?

    Expanding our inputs can be harmful, just think about sight right now, you are looking at these words but can you really read anything else without looking directly at it? Now what if you put on 360 degree view and got input from all around, what can your brain focus on?

  20. I believe that time is not far when a differently abled people can fly planes, help in research and innovation without worrying about their disability.🙂

  21. We come equipped u just want to tamper with what God gave us. Our sensors are made for us. U created technology obv if u never had it, u'd never need it.

  22. Tell them what we had that they dont. It doesn't matter what they have heighten. He's using words to delegitimize the human body

  23. I think the connection of this to video games is very intersting. While playing games, you often get visual or audial cues by the game. After a while you learn to interpret those passively.

  24. I think a good way of explaining this is comparing it to the ability to read text. (Most likely) you just took visual information and heard speech.

  25. A great example is when you can tell which family member is coming up the stairs by the sound of their footsteps, i think

  26. Well every thought of helping humanity and advancing technologie is a good thought, even if in the first place money making was prior. There's nothing against getting payed if its worth it.
    It seems not to be the best solution, but I'm optimistic that it can only develope better.

  27. This is how they’re training their computers, this is why they’re advancing so fast so quickly. This is why this hasn’t been released to the public yet. They realized it would be more useful to train their computers, rather than waste it on humans early on. Make money now and later. Master it and learn to control it before we do.

  28. This is how they’re training their computers, this is why they’re advancing so fast so quickly. This is why this hasn’t been released to the public yet. They realized it would be more useful to train their computers, rather than waste it on humans early on. Make money now and later. Master it and learn to control it before we do.

  29. I have always dreamt of being able too see a much larger range of the EM spectrum and too see magnetic/electric fields. i cant even explain how excited this video makes me feel. i want this right now.

  30. My left eye is used almost solely for peripheral vision… If anyone wants to implant my left eye with infrared and UV light cameras I'd consent.

  31. Now when a born profoundly deaf person gets introduced to this before they learn to sign. Will their brain interpret those thoughts as vibrations or images first? It wont be human speech in their head, even though we can think in our own language without stimulating the actual peripherals; would a deaf person then feel the world around them in their head or just picture it or both? This could completely separate feeling physically and feeling auditory senses through peripheral devices. This technology fascinates me beyond what i could ever comprehend because it is beyond my umwelt.

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