As I’ve discussed previously, we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that ‘reality’ consists of what we sense around us via our sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But the truth is that we only see electromagnetic waves and hear audio waves from a tiny section of their entire spectrums. In the video below, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman discusses this topic, noting that this tiny slice of reality that we mistake for the totality of our environment is labeled our ‘umwelt’. Our umwelt is determined by the physical apparatus we have at our disposal to take in sensory data – which to this point has largely been our biological sense organs.
But Eagleman also points out that the brain is hugely adaptable in terms of interpreting signals and forming the perception of the outside world from it:
The thing to understand is that your eyes and ears aren’t doing the seeing in the first place. Your brain’s doing the seeing, and the thing to appreciate is that it is locked in silence and darkness in the vault of your skull. So all the brain ever ‘sees’, are electrical signals coursing around in giant populations of neurons…that’s all the brain ever experiences. It’s not seeing the light or the dark out there, or the colours. It’s not hearing the conversations. This is all that the brain is experiencing and nothing more.
But the brain is so tremendously flexible that what it’s really good at doing is saying “okay well, I’ve got these data cables coming in…I don’t know what information is carried on them.” I mean we call those data cables the optic nerve and the auditory nerve, but it doesn’t know what it is. All it sees is this kind of stuff, but it’s really good at extracting patterns, and figuring out what to do with them, and eventually – amazingly – how to have a direct perceptual experience that it constructs about the outside world.
…It turns out that the brain doesn’t care what the peripheral devices are that you plug in. These organs that we know and love like eyes and ears and fingertips – these are plug and play peripheral devices, and you can put anything you want into the system and the brain will figure out how to use it.
These two factors: the limited environment (umwelt) that we perceive through our biological sense organs, and the brain’s adaptability to interpreting data fed into it, leads us to an exciting area of the future – augmentation. With the continual growth in technological power – and the continual shrinking in size of that technology – we have now entered an age where we can augment our natural sense organs with new data streams, feeding these new additions to our umwelt into our brains via our current sensory channels.
Eagleman currently has a Kickstarter project running which looks at augmentation as a means to cover the gap left by the failure of a sensory channel – in this case, the hearing impaired, via a sensory substitution vest which converts audio data into tactile data. This allows the brain to gain access to an ‘information channel’ which normally can’t reach it. And as Eagleman explains, the brain quickly learns to recognise patterns from this ‘new’ data source and make sense of it.