Making Senses

Jonathan Strickland

Would you change your brain to see in the infrared spectrum? | © Corbis

There's a lot going on around us and most of us are completely oblivious. It's not that we aren't paying attention. It's just that as humans, we have to rely on senses that don't pick up everything. We get a little slice of reality and that's all we can experience. With the benefit of sensors and special equipment, we can detect phenomena outside our own borders of perception and translate it into information we can interpret. But what if we could get rid of the middle man?

That's the gist of this article at Scientific American. Melinda Wenner Moyer writes about a series of experiments in which scientists implanted devices into the brains of rats and trained the rats to see in the infrared spectrum. These wavelengths are usually outside the range of visible light for rats, but the rats could actually learn to detect and interpret infrared light.

The implications are pretty awesome. As Moyer points out, this could mean that we might have a future where, with the help of implants, we can perceive far more of our world than we can right now. It's hard for me to imagine what that would be like -- would I feel overwhelmed with all the new sensations or would I adjust automatically? I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. Our brains are pretty remarkable and can adapt to changing situations with a little practice.

Of course, that day is likely pretty far off. I imagine it will take some time to develop the technology and processes that will meet medical and ethical standards for use on humans. Even then, I imagine there will be some debate about whether it's right to expand our abilities in this way. My own opinion is that there's nothing wrong with it but I know there are people who feel very strongly that this is a sensitive area.

What do you think? Would you get an implant in your brain if it meant you could perceive more of the world around you? Or are there some things we shouldn't tinker with?