Imagine being able to understand what people are saying after a lifetime of nothing but silence. Neuroscientist David Eagleman has created a vest that allows this and more. It sounds ridiculous but it works. Honest.

By Phoebe Vowles-Webb

Sensory Substitution

Eagleman's vest in action / TED
Eagleman’s vest in action / TED

Eagleman’s vest works just like an ear, but instead of converting sound into electrical impulses, it converts it into patterns of vibrations that sweep across the torso. This seems odd, for how can speech be understood when it is not heard, or even read? The vest’s success seems even less possible when we consider how complex the vibratory patterns are. The answer to all of this lies in understanding Brain Plasticity theory.

The idea is that the brain can rearrange itself throughout a person’s life. If important parts of the brain are damaged, other parts of the brain can function on their behalf. The brain can use different pathways, namely senses, to get information when others are blocked or insufficient.

Eagleman has used this theory to restore people’s lost senses. 

With just a little training, each participant’s unconscious unlocked the pattern of the vest’s vibrations, and they could understand speech. It doesn’t matter which sense information comes from, the brain can quickly adapt to understand it. This is how Eagleman’s participants – some of who were profoundly deaf – could understand speech within just days. And after 3 months, a wearer will understand the vibrations without any direct conscious intervention: as direct perception. Eagleman mused that the brain could even grow to understand the vibrations as sound.

Why is this technology important?

Eagleman has successfully pioneered Brain Plasticity theory, perhaps the most insightful theory in neuroscience. The theory had been developed since the 1860s, but the idea of an adaptive brain was suppressed by neuroscience until Bach-y-Rita began contributing to the field. After his father recovered from a stroke that severed 97% of his cortex-spinal cord nerves, Bach-y-Rita revolutionised rehabilitation for stroke victims. But his subsequent work, developing technology substituting lost sight for touch, was impractical. It is only now, 50 years later, that Sensory Substitution been taken into popular science and into practical treatments for people suffering from sensory loss. On top of pioneering successful and effective technology, Eagleman has created a platform through online publicity for others to learn about his work and contribute new technology and research to the field.

Of course, most importantly, the vest can replace the problematic solution for deafness currently available. Cochlear implants cost $100,000, making the surgery and necessary rehabilitation an option for very few. The invasive surgery can cause lasting pain and discomfort; it can even damage the ear. Sometimes it does not even work with older people who are profoundly deaf. The vest is likely to be below $2,000, an immediate and low-risk option that has yielded significantly good results with wearers in just days.

But beyond this, the vest could help us all. Not limited to replacing and enhancing a person’s natural senses; the vest can connect the wearer to so much more. During his TED talk, Eagleman presented the vest’s potential: His team programmed Eagleman’s vest to give different vibrations depending on the positivity and negativity of the audience’s tweets: he was plugged into the audience’s immediate impressions of him. Eagleman’s team have gone even further: They coded a pilot’s vest to give him real-time information of the positions of his quadcopter. It fed back 9 complex measures, including pitch, orientation and yaw. Immediately this seems too ambitious, but the pilot quickly understood and reacted to each vibratory wave. His flying significantly improved because ultimately, “he’s extending his skin” to encompass the plane.

If Eagleman and his team can help a pilot fly better, they can certainly help you and I. They could program vests to give us the latest election poll results, or the progress of a petition. Vests could feed us research results while we are away from our computers, as if we were in two places at once.

The vest offers a more reliable connection to the world than the assumptions we make based on our limited natural senses. We can process large amounts of information with less effort and within less time, by hooking into computers and even other minds,

Eagleman’s vest technology is finally illuminating the true abilities of the human brain. He and his team offer a solution to people suffering from deafness, with minimal risk and immediate results. The vest offers new and more effective ways to perceive the world beyond our natural senses. And it’s pretty cheap, too.

Written by Malek Murison

Malek Murison is a freelance tech journalist working closely with clients in the drone industry.

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