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How Scientists Are Pushing The Boundaries Of Our Senses

A book cover for "We Have the Technology" by Kara Platoni.
Basic Books
A book cover for "We Have the Technology" by Kara Platoni.

How Scientists Are Pushing The Boundaries Of Our Senses
How Scientists Are Pushing The Boundaries Of Our Senses GUEST: Kara Platoni, author, "We Have the Technology"

Everything we know about the world, what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell was boiled down to electrical signals in our brains. Scientists are learning more about how we perceive the world, how we process sensory information and they are exploring whether we can ratify it. Can we enhance our site for example or even develop new senses? Joining me with more on this research is Terrapin Tony author of the book we have to technology -- she will be speaking tomorrow night at mysterious galaxy bookstore in Claremont. That he so much for joining us. Thank you for having me. What made you take a year's leave of absence from a job in Berkeley. What with the transit you are seeing. I am a reporter from the bay area. I teach at UC Berkeley. The big thing that was going on in Silicon Valley with the idea of technology that you can put on your body. Stuff that you can wear that will shape your behavior and sugar procession. I'm not an engineer -- that can shape your perception. I wanted to go out and find real stories of real people doing cool stuff about perception hacking. I took a year off and I'd kind of sofa searched my way around the world thanks to the power of Facebook and I found 11 stories of people's lives amazing. But stop -- let's start with the sense of smell. We've all had experiences. Neural scientists are fighting there is a connection between smell and Alzheimer's? Yes. A lot of people -- I did not realize that one of the first clinical symptoms of Alzheimer's is problems with smelling, problems differentiating between smell. Don't freak out if you don't smell as good as you used to because follows with smelling as you age is very common but I met at very interesting group of women in Paris France who are women who work in the cosmetics industry and they had thought -- exactly like Kristen -- smell and memory are closely related and so closely related with emotion and nostalgia that they thought -- what if we went into the geriatric ward of the hospital and we use smell to help people with Alzheimer's and other dimensions recover lost memories. It is an amazing idea. People think of technology as the electronics and wearable. Welt chemistry and perfume is a chemistry. They would bring in the sense that they had made of things that would be kind of provocative for somebody who had grown up in France -- the smell of fruits, smell of outdoorsy smell, beloved folds like bread and wine and they would put a paper blotter and wait under clients knows it has and what they would smell. And that they would have a conversation. Even if the present normally had trouble communicating or was a very verbal anymore could not name things. Often they would be able to recall a memory associate with that sent. I want to move on to taste which would think of there being just a certain number of taste, salty, sweet, sour, bitter. I understand you are a part of a disparate to discover a new taste. Most of us grew up with the four that you mentioned. And then in the year 2000 along can number five which was this concept of savory. It was the sensation associated with Parmesan cheese or slow roasted tomato sauce, caramelized needs -- something like that. And when scientists discovered number five the race was on to discover number six. So I went to Denver to the Museum of nature and science to participate in a public science experiment to see if that might be the sixth taste. A lot of people think bacon or ice cream. That is not what that taste like. If you can taste it, this is the big question -- they are actually scientists all over the world looking to see if they can find number six. Some of the other contenders are water. Some people think it might be the taste of carbon dioxide. It is a taste separate from the field of bubbles. There is an amazing concept of cocooning it makes sweet sweeter, savory savory or etc. That would really in health our -- really enhance. Language is something that shapes our experience in away. You write about out new kinds of language can change our perception is that right? Yes. One of the big questions actually in the world of flavor science and the world of finding this sixth taste is the short language limit what you can taste? Nonnie was actually discovered in Japan 100 years before scientists in the West excepted the idea and one of the big question is is it because they had this word economic which meant something to people and people commonly used it allowed people to perceive something that the rest of us were missing. Once it became excepted in the West it allowed us to focus our attention on it. This question on the language shape perception has been used in so many different categories of research including envision. People wondered -- you have to have a word for a color before you can perceive a new color? On my book tour people have said to me -- my language does not have a character for a certain sound -- does that affect the way that I hear speech? In the world of emotion there's really interesting research that says if your language have a word for a certain feeling can you feel it? If you do not know what schadenfreude is can you feel it? Or at least are you aware that you are feeling it? Language is an incredible technology. It is a human made tool we have to go to the predominant perception. We had this -- one of my favorite things that I got to be able to do was I was able to meet a man who was one of the first people in the planet who was ever we learned how to see. He was born with normal vision and life as an adult. And he regained some degree of site because he volunteered to be one of the first people to ever get a retinal implant. This is a device actually goes in his eyeball and it interprets feet from a camera into visual signals that he processes in his brain. It does not -- the world does not look to him like it did when he was a young man. He does not the three-dimensional objects. It does not the color matchup with objects way he used to. He mostly sees flashes of light but this is such an interesting first step in the world of alternate vision. Trying to capitalize on a therapeutic device that would help people with a medical need. There's also augmented reality, virtual reality devices that are really more for entertainment, for gaming, for people that want to have this kind of computer assisted overlay of information or pictures on top of the natural world. That's fascinating. There are so many different new applications for this. I just did a story on virtual reality for the elderly. One of the ideas is -- could this be there.? Could help people overcome loneliness? Chronic pain? Could it be a way for people with dimension who struggle to speak or to communicate to just enjoy this kind of other reality? Well this is a fascinating subject. We could talk about this for a long time. We are on the cusp of tinkering with evolution so I recommend that you have a look for this book. It is called we have the technology. We have been speaking with Cara for Tony who is speaking at mysterious galaxy bookstore tomorrow night. Thanks so much for joining us. Thank you.

Everything we know about the world — what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell — boils down to electrical signals in our brains. Science journalist Kara Platoni wants to know more about how our brains interpret those signals, and whether current research can expand our ability to perceive the world, potentially developing completely new senses.

"We are learning to interpret the brain's language, the data flow that turns electrochemical fizz into sensations, experiences, feelings — the very stuff of being," Platoni wrote in her book "We Have the Technology." "And if we can understand this information, we can modify it."


Platoni visited labs around the world working on the five senses, including the San Diego office of Innovega, an augmented reality company. It's working on a contact lens system that can overlay all sorts of information on our field of view and even zoom in on what we see. But Platoni said the work into augmented reality has already started to move beyond the goggles and glasses she wrote about in her book.

"We saw an enormous backlash to Google Glass and companies got very sensitive about putting things near your eye," she said. "The new thing is almost like stick-on bandages, with sensors that are lightweight. Athletes use them for training, monitoring the amount of UV sunlight they're exposed to, their blood pressure and heart rate."

Platoni writes that this research into upgrading our senses puts us "on the cusp of tinkering with evolution," but admits we have been tinkering with our senses for centuries. She said the invention of the wristwatch was a body modification that altered our perception of time just as biohackers today implant magnets under their skin in an attempt to perceive magnetic fields.

"Maybe the cusp passed us hundreds if not thousands of years ago," she said. "But it's harder and harder to tell where the alteration stops and the new reality begins. When you left a movie theater, you knew that the movie was over. If you have something as a part of your body, how do you know where the modification ends?"

Platoni joins KPBS Midday Edition Thursday with more on how scientists are trying to transform human perception.