Umwelt ˈo͝omvelt/ noun (in ethology) the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.
The oldest known lens, the Nimrud lens, dates back 2700 years (7th century B.C.) to ancient Assyria. A plano-convex magnifying lens was found at the house of an engraver in Pompeii (1854). There are reportedly 8th century BC depictions of magnification lens in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Roger Bacon made the first modern magnifying in 1250. Human’s have been augmenting our senses for millennia. The practice started with simple devices like visors to block the sun and ingenious creations like Inuit snow goggles to reduce exposure to sunlight and prevent snow blindness. We invented microscopes and telescopes to see closer and farther, ear trumpets to hear better, and wine snifter glasses to enhance scent. In the 19th and 20th century scientists invented instruments to detect information that our senses could not – radio waves, x-rays, and electron microscopes that can view objects in the nanometer scale. And militaries developed night vision goggles. Now comes the 21st century and we’re experimenting with technology like google glass and augmented reality. There are thousands of individuals working the world with artificial hearing and vision.
How far can we go with the augmenting of senses and are there new senses on the horizon?
The Toba Event
Let’s frame the discussion in another way. As I pointed out yesterday, about 70 to 75 thousand years ago, the Toba volcano in Sumatra, Indonesia erupted and sent the Earth into a global volcanic winter for 6 to 10 years (and human populations may have dropped to as few as 3,000 surviving individuals). The event may have caused a shift in the human mind, a change that created consciousness and culture on the scale we know it today. I’ve often wondered how our minds perceived music before that shift. Whether it was Toba or not, there was some crossing for our minds, in our perceptions from when we did not understand music (and art) and when we did. That’s an enigma, to understand, perceive something for the first time. Our basic perceptions have always been with us, but as our minds have developed, so have new outlooks on perceptions. Can we, as a species, augment ourselves with technology to create new senses and feelings?
Neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks we can create new senses for humans. In his TED Talk Eagleman explains that our experience of reality is constrained by our biology, but it’s our peripheral senses that limit us, not our brain. He points out that the brain doesn’t know or where the information comes from, doesn’t’ care, but is very good at interpreting data (it’s plasticity is considerable). For example, there are now thousands of people experiencing the world with electronic implants that help them hear or see, and deaf people using sonic glasses to “see” the world. Eagleman explains the limits of human perception and some ways to redesign how we experience the world in his amazing TED Talk, Can we create new senses for humans?
This line of speculation of course brings up the spectra of “The Borg.” Some thinkers suggest that we are already augmented – how many people would willingly give up their smartphones or computers. But as with all Human concepts, there’s another possibility. In Kathleen Ann Goonan short story, “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” published in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014), Goonan invasions a future where a girl with dyslexia is transformed by a technology that uses neural plasticity, and individualized learning to provide her with an education system tuned to her individual needs, and helps her change the world for the better.
All this begs the question: “The Universe is waiting for us, how far are we willing to go?”
I’ve learned so much working this project. I highly recommend this type of learning too. It lets you concentrate on a subject that you are interested it, the time line is difficult, but encourages discipline and pushes the mind. It has also made me realize how amazing it is to learn and that there’s so much more to learn.
Potentially profound. If you haven’t watched David Eagleman’s TED Talk, do so, he will open your eyes.