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David Eagleman interview: How our brains could create whole new senses

Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to remodel itself, enables us to interpret all kinds of sensations. We can use that to create new ways to perceive the world, says neuroscientist David Eagleman

Mind 12 May 2021

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Rocio Montoya

WOULD you like to be hooked up to a device that lets you detect magnetic fields like a bird? How about sensing infrared light like a snake? Perhaps a feed of real-time stock market data into your mind is more your sort of thing. According to David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California, it will soon be possible to make all this a reality.

He has already created technologies along these lines, including a wristwatch-like device called Buzz that translates sound into patterns of vibration on the skin. Interpreting those vibrations effectively gives deaf people who use it a new kind of hearing.

The inspiration for these ideas grew out of Eagleman’s study of neuroplasticity, the brain’s incredible ability to reforge itself in response to new experiences. In his latest book, Livewired: The inside story of the ever-changing brain, he examines just how the brain pulls off such wholesale changes and explores the extent to which we can harness this ability to learn new tricks.

Eagleman says neuroscientists still have a lot to learn about how the brain changes. Much of the focus has been on synapses, the connections between brain cells called neurons. But there are deeper and more mysterious ways in which the brain is changing all the time, he says, and we are guilty of overlooking them. As we learn more about the brain and begin to enhance it with new technology, we might gain some intriguing new abilities.

Clare Wilson: You study the way the brain changes in response to our experiences. How does it do that?

David Eagleman: When you learn …