Project: “Hack your brain” — the haptic compass belt.
This project is the outcome of me trying to replicate the results study run by some researchers at Osnabrück University and published in the Journal of Neural Engineering under the title “Beyond sensory substitution–learning the sixth sense”
The abstract reads:
Rapid advances in neuroscience have sparked numerous efforts to study the neural correlate of consciousness. Prominent subjects include higher sensory area, distributed assemblies bound by synchronization of neuronal activity and neurons in specific cortical laminae. In contrast, it has been suggested that the quality of sensory awareness is determined by systematic change of afferent signals resulting from behaviour and knowledge thereof. Support for such skill-based theories of perception is provided by experiments on sensory substitution. Here, we pursue this line of thought and create new sensorimotor contingencies and, hence, a new quality of perception. Adult subjects received orientation information, obtained by a magnetic compass, via vibrotactile stimulation around the waist. After six weeks of training we evaluated integration of the new input by a battery of tests. The results indicate that the sensory information provided by the belt (1) is processed and boosts performance, (2) if inconsistent with other sensory signals leads to variable performance, (3) does interact with the vestibular nystagmus and (4) in half of the experimental subjects leads to qualitative changes of sensory experience. These data support the hypothesis that new sensorimotor contingencies can be learned and integrated into behaviour and affect perceptual experience.
The highlighted parts contain the important bit: while other studies and experiments use sensory substitution (e.g. to let blind people “see” using their tongue), this experiment does not attempt to substitute, but to enhance, or rather add another novel sense. It’s of course all based on the concept of neuro-plasticity, the idea/fact that the brain is able to change and adapt to new sensory inputs.
As I found this tremendously interesting, I decided to build a haptic compass belt myself and try to see if I could rewire my brain as well. The result can be seen in the picture below. And here’s what I wrote about the experience (as submitted in a seminar paper):
“Although I can only rely on the reports as stated in the paper by Nagel et al. I find my personal experience to be quite comparable to that of the two subjects with significant qualitative changes in perception of orientation etc. While, as quoted above, especially familiar environments gained new spacial qualities — for each university building I could (and still can) now point to their orientation relative to the magnetic north — the qualitative enhancement was most notable during episodes of `urban exploration’ conducted on four consecutive Fridays of those 4 weeks that I wore the belt. For these explorations, me and a good friend would somewhat randomly choose a new area of Hong Kong to explore, take the subway there and randomly exit without consulting a map. Especially because of Hong Kong’s unique setting of countless high-rise buildings, the areas we explored allowed for almost no visual cues for geographical orientation as no landmark buildings or structures were visible at any time. Furthermore, these explorations always took place between 19:00 and 24:00 o’clock, eliminating even the possibility to for orientation based on shadows or the location of the sun. Similarly to what the test subjects of the original paper reported, it is very difficult to put into words how experience and perception changed qualitatively. As they for the subjects, after a while I did not need to concentrate on the vibrations from the belt any more. Instead, it incorporated itself into my everyday life just like any other sense is always present but not necessarily in the focus of attention. At the same time, I could not, however, access a kind of sense of `north-ness’ similar to how I can bring my olfactory senses in the foreground of conscious experience. The best way I can describe the qualitative change is through my personal feeling of orientation-confidence during such episodes of urban exploration. As the title of this essay suggests, especially in comparison to the episodes of urban exploration I did without the compass belt, I felt much more confident in finding my way around even complicated streets and blocks of houses — uttering `trust me, its this way’ a lot more frequently than without the belt. Interestingly, this did not necessarily relate to my feeling of where north was, but just a generally enhanced sense of spatial relationship between the turns we had taken or not.”