New senses, electronically induced. How gadgets reshape the human sensorium

Moving further into the digital world, we will be able to induce not just familiar but completely new, never before known senses. For example, a banking chip implanted under the skin may, one day, create the sense of a full or empty bank account. Connecting to the social network, we will have to experience “physically” the distance to those speaking, or the actuality, the time-freshness, of what will be said. We will have to sensorily perceive the massiveness, or virality of a topic.


Augmented sensorium

German scientists have been developing a new device, the feel-space belt, which allows a wearer to feel the Earth’s magnetic field and be oriented in the four winds, just like birds and bats are.

Belt1So far, such manipulations with sensorium don’t represent a truly new sense. The feel-space belt just transforms the magnetic currents into vibrations that the body can easily perceive. In reality, the new sensation is just a cognitive effect induced by a physical impact on receptors of the old sense, which is tactility. It is safe to say that this transition of meaning of one “sense” via the other sense is symbolical. It requires an intermediary; therefore, it requires time and effort to recognize and learn the “content” of the signals, while the real, natural senses are immediate for perception, as they require no symbolic interpretation. We feel cold or water directly, by sensors designed to feel such things.

Although, one could argue that the natural sensorium is an interface as well – the interface between the mind inside the body and the environment outside. It may be seen so, but this interface is “embedded” or attached to the mind literally, by nerve endings, which are somehow a part of the nerve-brain system, the matter of cognition, so to speak. The sensorium is an interface only metaphorically, since it is inherent in the biological nature of the individual-environment interaction, on the end of the individual, not between them.


The third-signal system

With devices able to induce (for now, symbolically; though physically as well) new senses, we meet, for the first time, a new signal system.

Pavlov and dogThis idea is related to a concept by physiologist Ivan Pavlov (remember Pavlov’s dog?). He stated, to put it briefly, that sensorium is a first-signal system, while the speech is a second-signal system, which evokes cognitive reactions by transmitting symbolically mediated signals.

So, now, we have been preparing for the third-signal system which will allow the obtaining of cognitive stimuli via devices that induce our perceptions, in essence, electronically. This is quite a logical extension of McLuhan’s concept of the extensions of man by electronic and now digital media.

The first-signal and the second-signal systems may be interchangeable in transferring the stimuli. For example, an experienced public speaker knows a good trick for grabbing an audience’s attention: just put in your speech mention of something like pickled cucumbers, or the aroma of coffee. If it is done well, especially not long before lunch, people will respond with literally physiological reflexes, like salivation or sniffing. We can artificially, by means of the second-signal system, induce perception provided usually by the first-signal system. So will the third-signal system, at first.

By means of gadgetization and introducing new sorts of interfaces, the human sensorium will broaden, moving farther and farther from its biological origin (When Humans Transcend Biology – the subtitle of Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near.)

I foresee three arriving waves of new sensation.

Arriving now: new, but familiar sensations

That is what immersive media are about. We already can easily induce earlier experienced senses, like the taste of cucumber, by means of substitutions, verbal, environmental, or… chemical. (Here is, by the way, a huge health-nutrition problem – artificial flavours induce tastes of natural products, deluding, thereby, the organism that “expects” but never receives the nutrition that has to follow, normally, these tastes. How disordered the digestive system may be as a consequence! Soon, children may attribute the tomato flavour solely to… the flavour. The substitute is the medium and the message at the same time. But what is the value of an artificial taste promoted to be like a real tomato if no one knows real tomatoes? Marketing, like the Ouroboros, devours itself. Though… it just increases the price of tomatoes. But I digress.)


Next: new, but derivative sensations

We can induce familiar or even imaginable senses, which we haven’t ever been experiencing in reality. This is what the feel-space belt is doing, for now very roughly, but nevertheless… For visually impaired people, devices are developed that can transmit the spectrum of colours and lighting around, along with spatial orientation into… a mouth cavity, using, again, slight electric stimulation. Or, say, gamers playing the 3D-flying shutter for long enough may experience the sense of flight as though it were real… (And no doubt, militaries will outstrip medicine in developing sense-inducing devices for remote orientation and operation.)

By the way, in the induced digital reality, the sense of gravity will be the first to be denied.


Final: ultimately new, digitally induced post-human sensations

And finally, moving further into the digital world, we will be able to induce not just familiar but completely new, never before known senses. For example, a banking chip implanted under the skin may, one day, create the sense of a full or empty bank account. Connecting to the social network, we will have to experience “physically” the distance to those speaking, or the actuality, the time-freshness, of what will be said. We will have to sensorily perceive the massiveness, or virality of a topic. We almost already can feel it now, looking at the number of likes and reposts, but in the future, it will have to be a particular sense, similar to how we feel the crowd in the stadium or in the subway; or how we feel the emptiness of an empty room.


Time-space bias of the new digital sensorium

Speaking of gravity… Such a logic of the time-space biases of the digitally reshaped sensorium may be suggested here.

Sensations of the first-signal system are space-biased, as they scan the physical environment for humans to manipulate with. Before certain steps in the gradual digitization of the environment, humans hadn’t even had a concept of time. Of course, any sequence of events is unfolded in time, but those participating are time-blind, they can not manipulate with time (maybe except for creative and some other activities; “Man was able to arrest time,” wrote Innis in regards to Babylonian advances in astronomy and calendars.)

“Sensation” of the second-signal system (which is cognition) is space- and time-neutral, as speech and other symbolic mediums have untied the mind from physical leashes, putting the mind into Plato’s cave.

Sensations of the third-signal system will have to be space-ignorant, but time-biased.

Space time Einshtein

Such a conclusion is based on an assumption that, in the digital environment, the space dimensions have to become simply irrelevant. We will have only one space characteristic – “here”, which will stand for “everywhere”. Space will collapse into “here/everywhere”; it has already been collapsing, when you are on the Internet.

It is similar to what we have as a time condition in the physical world, where time is represented only by “now”, while the other dimensions of time, “the past” and “the future”, are reduced to be perceived only grammatically, only in the “now”.

Thus, time in the new digital environment has to be expansible, cancellable, repeatable – “elastic”, in one word. We (those after us) will be able to operate within at least two dimensions and two states of time: acceleration – deceleration and cancelling – repetition.

Medicine, education, and especially games, have already been delivering such qualities of time to us.


Super-high as the highest new sensation

Then, yawning chasms are opening over there. The augmented sensorium may – and will – transcend biologically and socially established reflexes far and away.

taste coldSo the first bunch of digital senses will simulate natural ones, just because we have to rest on something familiar in our cognitive experience.

Then, we will develop derivative senses; these derivations will have been detaching farther and farther from what we have been familiar with in our previous physical experience.

Once in the future, we will have moved far enough to become completely resettled in the digital environment that will turn out to be the natural environment for the new, digital post-human being. By that moment, we will be able to design completely new sensations, with whatever range of excitement.

What will be the final fantasy for the highest sensation? The high, of course.


Final trial by high

Considering the endless future potential for the design and control of digitally induced sensorium, we have to admit that this high will be unlimited. The ability to control sensorium unleashes an uncontrolled sense of excitement, to which, as of now, we can find nothing to compare.

taste monkeyExcept perhaps, “…and He saw that it was very good!”

This supreme sensation may turn out to be either a totally destructive thing (like in the 1953 experiment with self-pleasing rats, by Olds and Milner), or God’s pleasure; or, most likely, both.

The only hope is that this supreme being, before experiencing the highest pleasure, will look “…over all He had made”, as it’s recorded. Here is a good question about the difference between human high and God’s pleasure – what do they consist of?

In any case, on the very threshold of Singularity, the trial by the final high is waiting for the future trans-human being.

(Thus, sufficiently long, quite deep, and fair enough speculations on the media environment inevitably end up in the Singularity and Transhumanism, if not religion.)

Portrait of Singularity

Electrically charged sense of attachment

A special electric dog collar can charge an animal with an electric shock when it starts barking too much or runs too far away. So, this device brings up a dog with a sense of attachment. This dog collar may start with vibration to warn a dog before punishment, so the device provides a dog not just with a “new” sensation, but also with a presentiment.

Electrically charged sense of guilt

Sensory punishing devices are already developed for people, as well. An electronic bracelet punishes the wearer with a slight electric shock (they call it a “ZAP”) in case the wearer passes a deadline, or smokes when having pledged to quit, or breaks some other rules established by themselves (so far by themselves). The device is designed to facilitate the fight against bad habits. And it does this by inducing the fear of punishment that fosters a sense of guilt. (I wonder how soon the bracelet will redefine Asimov’s First Law in the “proper” way, and begin deciding what is good and bad for humans.)

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon


Categories: Augmented reality, Future and Futurology, Immersive experience, Media ecology, Singularity and Transhumanism

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1 reply


  1. Creating an Augmented Sense: ubiquitous bodies – [ AOS ] Art is Open Source

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