Our sense of superiority notwithstanding, the human senses are not the most sophisticated in the animal kingdom. Dogs can hear sounds at a pitch well out of our range. Dolphins use echolocation as a simple and effective SatNav device. But now Kevin O’Regan and his team have trained people to integrate a sense of magnetic north into their perceptual system using two smartphone apps called “hearSpace” and “naviEar”.
One group of people was given earphones enhanced with a geomagnetic compass. When they turned north, the pleasant sound of a waterfall could be heard from in front of them; the sound moved to the side and back as they turned away. And here’s the surprise: Soon people were so attuned to this new sense of direction that it became an integral part of their sense of orientation. Or, as O’Regan puts it: “We successfully integrated magnetic north into the neural system in the inner ear that underlies spatial orientation.”
Companies are already getting in on the act. Cyborg Nest is selling a product called North Sense. It can be attached to the skin and gently vibrates when the user faces north. Rivals include wearable anklets that buzz when heading north – along with a host of smartphone apps that offer less invasive ways to find your way home.
And it needn’t stop with a compass. O’Regan thinks we could potentially find other ways to augment the suite of senses that comes preloaded in our heads. That, he says, would be “a first step towards the development of cyborgs.”
In the lab with Dr. O'Regan (buckle up!)
To test whether people can learn to ‘feel’ North on a compass, Frank Schumann in O’Regan’s team seated volunteers blindfolded in a special chair, gave them headphones (linked to an iPhone) that played a waterfall sound when pointed North, and then began rotating the chair. He doesn’t say, in his published Nature Scientific Reports paper, whether anyone got carsick.
O’Regan's research is among several studies into the senses that have been funded over the past decade by the European Research Council the EU’s premiere agency for frontier research. Our interactive feature on O’Regan’s research will be available 7 November on ERC=Science², our communications campaign that uses popular scientific themes such as ‘longevity’ and ‘food’ to highlight ERC-funded research and the potential impact it can have on society. The feature on O'Regan is the third in a series of articles on the senses that will be released in the coming weeks on ERC=Science².
Kevin O'Regan is ex-director of the Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception, CNRS, Université Paris Descartes. After early work on eye movements in reading, he was led to question established notions of the nature of visual perception, and to discover, with collaborators, the phenomenon of "change blindness". In 2011 he published a book with Oxford University Press: "Why red doesn't sound like a bell: Understanding the feel of consciousness". In 2013 he obtained a five year Advanced ERC grant to explore his "sensorimotor" approach to consciousness in relation to sensory substitution, pain, color, space perception, developmental psychology and robotics.
About the European Research Council
The ERC's mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence. The ERC expects that its grants will help to bring about new and unpredictable scientific and technological discoveries - the kind that can form the basis of new industries, markets, and broader social innovations of the future. ERC grants are awarded through open competition to projects headed by starting and established researchers, irrespective of their origins, who are working or moving to work in Europe. The sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence.
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Diane M. Fresquez