David explains that we are made of very small stuff in a very big universe and we have difficulty comprehending scale in the world we perceive. Take colors for example, we only perceive about 10% percent of the spectrum. We can’t see these spectrums because our biology filters out other perspectives such as radio waves. If you look across the animal kingdom, different species sample different spectrums to understand their slice of the world. We call this filtration of the world around us the Umwelt.
David asks what it is like to be blind? David asks the audience to imagine you are a blood hound which understands its whole world by smells. Imagine you are the blood hound imaging what it would be like to have an impoverished human nose. The point being that if we don’t have any awareness of it, we don’t perceive it.
As a nero scientist David is interested in whether we can expand our Unwelt. Implants have been used for a while; both retinal and cochlear (ear) implants. When they where first introduced, Dr’s did not believe that they would work because they do not interpret the world in the same way as our biological parts. Amazingly they worked just fine because the brain was able to interpret these signals and assign meaning to them.
David believes that these are just examples of peripheral devices that the brain figures out how to use. We see examples of this in the highly specialized peripheral devices in nature such as heat pits in snakes. As they are all peripherals, David figures that we should be able to add additional peripherals.
In David’s lab they are working on sensory substitution for the deaf. The idea is that when we make sound in the world it is translated to a set of signals to allow someone to understand it. David shows a vest that translates sound via Bluetooth to a vest that translates it to a vibration signal. In tests, a subject is able to wear the vest over a certain number of days and then interpret words even though they are completely deaf. The technology is also very cheap compared to implants and surgery.
Dave goes on to explain that they are testing the vest to see if a wearer can add additional senses beyond our native ones by gaining a direct perception of data that has been transmitted to the vest. For more information on David’s research click https://www.ted.com/speakers/david_eagleman