Today's vocabulary word is "proprioception".

This article is full of awesome. I want new sensory organs too!

Mixed Feelings

For six weird weeks in the fall of 2004, Udo Wächter had an unerring sense of direction. Every morning after he got out of the shower, Wächter, a sysadmin at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, put on a wide beige belt lined with 13 vibrating pads -- the same weight-and-gear modules that make a cell phone judder. On the outside of the belt were a power supply and a sensor that detected Earth's magnetic field. Whichever buzzer was pointing north would go off. Constantly.

"It was slightly strange at first," Wächter says, "though on the bike, it was great." He started to become more aware of the peregrinations he had to make while trying to reach a destination. "I finally understood just how much roads actually wind," he says. Deep into the experiment, Wächter says, "I suddenly realized that my perception had shifted. I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head. I could always find my way home. Eventually, I felt I couldn't get lost, even in a completely new place."

On a visit to Hamburg, about 100 miles away, he noticed that he was conscious of the direction of his hometown. Wächter felt the vibration in his dreams, moving around his waist, just like when he was awake. [...]

When the original feelSpace experiment ended, Wächter, the sysadmin who started dreaming in north, says he felt lost; like the people wearing the weird goggles in those Austrian experiments, his brain had remapped in expectation of the new input. "Sometimes I would even get a phantom buzzing." He bought himself a GPS unit, which today he glances at obsessively. One woman was so dizzy and disoriented for her first two post-feelSpace days that her colleagues wanted to send her home from work. "My living space shrank quickly," says König. "The world appeared smaller and more chaotic."


During a long brainstorm session, they wondered whether the tongue could actually augment sight for the visually impaired. I tried the prototype; in a white-walled office strewn with spare electronics parts, Wicab neuroscientist Aimee Arnoldussen hung a plastic box the size of a brick around my neck and gave me the mouthpiece. "Some people hold it still, and some keep it moving like a lollipop," she said. "It's up to you."

Arnoldussen handed me a pair of blacked-out glasses with a tiny camera attached to the bridge. The camera was cabled to a laptop that would relay images to the mouthpiece.

I cranked up the voltage of the electric shocks to my tongue. It didn't feel bad, actually -- like licking the leads on a really weak 9-volt battery. [...] I walked around the Wicab offices. I managed to avoid most walls and desks, scanning my head from side to side slowly to give myself a wider field of view, like radar. Thinking back on it, I don't remember the feeling of the electrodes on my tongue at all during my walkabout. What I remember are pictures: high-contrast images of cubicle walls and office doors, as though I'd seen them with my eyes. Tyler's group hasn't done the brain imaging studies to figure out why this is so -- they don't know whether my visual cortex was processing the information from my tongue or whether some other region was doing the work.

The author also has a blog about this stuff: sunnybains_feed.

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26 Responses:

  1. jayp39 says:

    I just read this a couple of days ago. All I can say is: I want one (of each).

  2. ding_0_ says:

    I knew proprioception, but judder is new

  3. skreidle says:

    That's ridiculously awesome, and now I want to try out some of those experimental devices!

  4. kencf0618 says:

    The brain is very plastic. Consider the remarkable case of Abigail and Brittany Hensel, who are dicephalic twins. From Wiki: "Their brains and spinal cords are completely separate. It could be that their brains can coordinate motor activities via the solar plexus and similar nerve networks in the abdomen which are linked to both spinal cords and vagus nerves from both brains."

  5. dsgood says:

    Note that humans can echolocate, though not nearly as well as bats. Before human echolocation was studied and the results made known, the information was likely to come across as some form of touch.

    And you might want to look at the Synesthesia website:

    Thanks very much for this!

  6. drhoz says:

    i wouldn't be surprised if the brain started up an old section of the brain, underused ever since we stopped needing a VERY good map of our area in order to find our burrows, avoid the big ugly fucker that lives in that territory over there, etc..

  7. explodingbat says:

    After hearing of the prismatic glasses experiment I wondered about making a goggles with fish-eye lenses on either side, to see if it's possible to adapt to a 360 degree field of vision.

  8. fantasygoat says:

    SO4 is my current new favourite band. If you like the album, they are 8 billion times better live.

  9. unlink says:

    This is awesome.I'm tempted to build my own compass belt right now.

    • gryazi says:

      Okay, I'll bite...

      I've been thinking about building a compass into my car using a single tricolor (R-G-B) LED. Since 'digital compass' projects using microcontrollers are a dime a dozen, the implementation itself isn't so hard.

      The hard part is the interface -- 4 compass points, but only 3 primary colors, and out of ROYGBIV, certain intermediate values are more readily discerned than others. I'm not sure if indicating 'northiness,' 'southwestiness,' and 'southeastiness' would result in something usable enough.

      Any ideas, lazyweb? Ideally this would produce an ambient 'sense of direction' indicator that doesn't require a direct view (or at least more than the fastest glance, given where the cones in the eye are) to interpret, versus a compass or GPS display that has to be 'read.'

      • 33mhz says:

        What about a single color LED whose light varies in intensity based on how close the car is to facing magnetic north ?

        • omnifarious says:

          That might be useful, but there'd be a problem as to whether you were left or right of it. I think having two colors mixed with each color representing how far left and how far right respectively. The colors would go black at 185 or 190, so they'd only both light up for the 10-20 degree swath where you were facing almost due magnetic south.

          • 33mhz says:

            The left/right ambiguity is only really significant if you are going straight forward in one direction in the dead of night.

        • gryazi says:

          Considered, but it doesn't seem very useful when I'm more commonly trying to determine east or west. You could derive that from response when turning, but that makes the 'reading' process a hell of a lot less instantaneous, and pretty entertaining if on a highway.

          A two-LED arrangement might be less than completely useless (NW-ness and NE-ness), but also seems like too much trouble to map one's brain to. Modulated brightness is also pretty awkward to tune for changing light conditions if you think about it.

        • unlink says:

          I suspect intensity is more relative than hue.

      • unlink says:

        You could additionally exploit saturation, e.g. using red, green, blue and white as cardinal points.

        For maximum resolution, you would have to distort the compass mathemagically to account for discernability, but I think that would be more confusing than useful.

      • I'd go with compass angle mapped to hue, N = Green, S = Purple. NW would be bluish green, NE yellowish green, SW bluish purple, SE reddish purple.

  10. omni_ferret says:

    Some body-mod artists implanted tiny magnets into fingertips, letting the wearer sense when power outlets are live, when a laptop hard drive is spinning up, and so on.

    Does this count as extrasensory?

    I checked but I couldn't find a post from you about this.

  11. How I love this.

  12. gfish says:

    I wish they'd sell the tongue sensors. Though making your own couldn't be that hard...

  13. sheilagh says:

    I already dream with directions built in, in a surreal version of the town I live in.

    Various structures are south of town, some are north, a few are northwest. There's an east of town dream venue, among others.

    I have a decent sense of direction when awake, too.

    Love the idea of a belt that teaches your body where north is.