I’m constantly amazed by the human brain’s ability to adjust to new senses and tools.
I remember reading about a man who conducted an experiment in sensory perception. He made a belt with a dozen or so cellphone vibrate motors, and a magnetometer (fancy word for compass). He rigged them up to a micro-controller, and wrote some simple software. He had the micro-controller trigger a vibration in whichever cellphone motor was currently pointing north.
The man was an avid bicyclist, and would wear this belt while biking. He found that, after several weeks, he had an alarmingly accurate sense of direction. He could bike miles from home, taking totally random turns, and would always get back home. No maps, no smartphone.
I also remember a story about people with magnetic implants. A man suffered an accident, leaving a piece of iron lodged in his finger.
He developed a new sense from this accident. Sort of like Spiderman:
He worked with audio equipment, and found that he could tell which speakers were magnetized from the sensation that passed through his finger at close range.
The ability for the brain to so quickly and intimately react to stimuli and treat it as sense is really intriguing to me. As the price of embedded electronics continues to fall, devices we can wear (or have “installed”) will become more and more accessible.
I wonder if this has already happened. We walk around with internet enabled devices strapped to our hips. People have a nearly Pavlovian response to their phone buzzing.
I’m also shocked at how well my brain - your cranial milage may vary - is able to deal with tools that I do not know how to properly operate. It compensates as best it can, and does a rather exceptional job at it.
I have two anecdotal examples:
Pens and pencils
I guess I missed the boat in school for learning how to hold a pencil correctly. I hold a pen or pencil squished between my thumb, middle, ring and pointer fingers. With the instrument mashed between my digits, I can write. My handwriting is very messy, but passable. This way of holding a pen is rather uncomfortable for any stretch of time more than 5 or 10 minutes. Thankfully, I don’t write much on paper.
This is more embarrassing, partially because it’s essential to my passion. I failed typing in 5th grade. And I mean failed it. I remember being the last kid in the computer room, sitting there, typing on a school computer and failing. The keyboard was covered with an orange rubber membrane to obscure the keys.
I had a really hard time with typing as a kid. But computers are a passion of mine. So I taught myself. Without any sort of formal training, I learned to type.
There’s a concept of a “home row” in typing. On a QWERTY US layout keyboard, you’re at the home row when you’re resting your left hand on the A, S, D and F keys and your right hand on the J, K, L and “;” keys. This allows efficient travel to other keys, and is claimed to improve typing performance.
I do not type using the “home row”. Casually observing my typing form now, I generally rest my left hand to the left of the home row keys. My left pinky is on the left shift key, my ring finger on the A key, and my middle and pointer fingers on the E and R keys respectively. My right hand positioning is similarly mangled.
My hands have a lot of travel on the keyboard. My mom once remarked to me that I “type cool”. She noticed that my style was very unusual, and that my hands would shift around on the keyboard a lot.
Despite this typing form deficiency, my speed doesn’t seem to be affected. I don’t know how many words per minute I type at, but I am much faster than the hunt-and-peck typists I know. Casually, I’d say I’m on par with fast touch typists.
Despite my troubles with finding keys under that orange membrane when I was younger, I currently type with a keyboard that has no printed glyphs. I do not struggle with accuracy on this keyboard.
Humans are excellent at pattern recognition. Really excellent. We beat highly advanced computers and algorithms at accurate voice processing, image detection, spacial analysis and complex reasoning.
It’s not a fair fight. It took 16,000 processor cores 3 days to accurately learn to recognize a human face from scratch. This was using very low resolution images.
We can learn to recognize a new object in seconds, from many angles, and have no problem reasoning about that object in space with very little time. We have implicit understanding.
As the future rolls on and technology get cheaper, we’ll use this awesome pattern recognition ability to expand our senses. I’m very excited.