We have known for hundreds of years that our sensory systems are very maleable – and can adapt to all sorts of input very rapidly. Investigating the inversion of the image on the retina, George Stratton developed a paid of “upside down glasses”, that flipped the image delivered to his eyes. After 4 days of wearing them, he found himself seeing ‘normally’ again – through the glasses. I then took him another four days of stumbling around not wearing them to ‘switch back’ to normal sight.
Modern day Strattons are exploring more practical, and equally amazing readaptions of sensation.
For six weird weeks in the fall of 2004, Udo WÃ¤chter had an unerring sense of direction. Every morning after he got out of the shower, WÃ¤chter, a sysadmin at the University of OsnabrÃ¼ck in Germany, put on a wide beige belt lined with 13 vibrating pads â€” the same weight-and-gear modules that make a cell phone judder. On the outside of the belt were a power supply and a sensor that detected Earth’s magnetic field. Whichever buzzer was pointing north would go off. Constantly.
“It was slightly strange at first,” WÃ¤chter says, “though on the bike, it was great.” He started to become more aware of the peregrinations he had to make while trying to reach a destination. “I finally understood just how much roads actually wind,” he says. He learned to deal with the stares he got in the library, his belt humming like a distant chain saw. Deep into the experiment, WÃ¤chter says, “I suddenly realized that my perception had shifted. I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head. I could always find my way home. Eventually, I felt I couldn’t get lost, even in a completely new place.”
It’s only a matter of time until we all start using our bodies sensory inputs in ways they were never intended…