Umwelt and My X-Ray Glasses

There was a time long ago when there were no smartphones or internet and virtual reality was imagination.  In the 60s, when I was 13, reading Superman and Batman comic books was a favorite activity. The best part was the page on the back with ads for things like whoopee cushions, stink bombs, and x-ray glasses, that could see through clothes! The makers of these glasses were onto something big!!  I appreciate this much more now because of a great TED talk by neuro-scientist David Eagleman that discusses umwelt or one’s experience of reality, which  is determined by what we can sense and think. For example, on my morning walk,  my dog constantly needs to stop to smell street posts. I  used to find this annoying, but now I understand her umwelt which allows her to read the daily dog news coded in scent.

Another thing I learned from the talk was that our brains are like computer processors that discern patterns from the inputs of our senses, which are like interchangeable computer peripherals. When one sense fails, our brains can adapt to discern patterns from other senses. This allows the blind to use hearing to “see” sound. Technology can also compensate for blindness by integrating with the optic or auditory nerves so that electronic peripherals can send vision or sound to our brains. Technology augments our senses. One may wear glasses  to see infrared, like snakes do, or ultraviolet light, like bees, or wear hearing aids to hear sounds waves beyond our natural range. I would like to find a nasal device to enjoy the daily dog news with my pooch – what a bonding experience that will be!

Augmentation, miniaturization, and biologic integration – this seems to be where we are going. As a physician, I see new frontiers, which allowed me to understand why a certain tumor makes a “plop” sound as it moves between the chambers of the heart. As an inventor focused on automotive innovation, I see  ways our senses can connect drivers with their vehicle. I proposed putting buttons on the steering wheel that are recognized by the sense of touch so that drivers can control their vehicles without the need to look away from the road. The toolbox of all our senses will plug’n play our brains and devices together in the realm of robotic avatars. New superpowers are enabling us to do tasks distant from our physical location – like perform surgery or explore Mars. While this all seems fantastic, I need some new comic books to find out what happens next.

Additional comments and hyperlink reference notes:

  • X-ray glasses in the 1960s seems pretty lame  compared to the internet of thought that pervades today’s adolescent mind. How unfortunate!
  • The Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System wirelessly transmits data from a video camera in a blind patient’s glasses to an eye implant that electrically stimulates remaining retinal cells. This enables perception of visual patterns.  A brief presentation can be found here.
  • Cochlear implants consist of a microphone, processor, transmitter and electrode array that transforms sound into electrical stimulation of the auditory nerve. This technology can help a deaf person perceive speech and other sounds.
  • I published a paper called “The Etiology of Atrial Myxoma Tumor Plop” in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which was based on frame by frame analysis of ultrasound images. I showed that when an atrial myxoma moves from the left atrium to the left ventricle, it obstructs the mitral valve and causes a high velocity blood jet that may correspond to a tumor plop sound.
  • Our hands represent the ultimate approach for machine control because of their fine motor and sensory abilities.  Because touch is how hands  “see”, adding textures, shapes, and temperature differences to interfaces will enhance our ability to manually control devices.
  • James Cameron reached the deepest depths of almost 7 miles with his Deepsea Challenger submersible. There are many advantages to explore biologically perilous environments on Earth (and other planets) using robots that remotely integrate with our body and mind, with our being safely situated eating popcorn. Robotic avatars can extend human  senses and abilities vastly in all fields of endeavor, especially medicine.
  • Photograph of digital eye is from iStock Getty Images by Brian A Jackson.  Dog photos are copyrighted by GeriCoh LLC.
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