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Mind-blowing Brain Cases: The Man Who Hears Colours

Mind-blowing Brain Cases: The Man Who Hears Colours

This week in Mind Blowing Brain Cases: Cyborg Neil Harbisson.

The human brain has been described as ‘the most complex thing we have yet discovered in the universe’. In this series neuroscientist Elisabeth Buhl Thubron takes a closer look at intriguing brain cases that revolutionised the field. Some led to new theories, others to popular brain myths or even more confusion. 

Part 2: The Man Who Can Hear Colours

Name: Neil Harbisson (1982-present)
Age at time of transition: 22 years old
Occupation: Contemporary artist and cyborg activist
Nationality: British

 “It’s not the union between the eyeborg and my head that converts me into a cyborg but the union between the software and my brain”

Imagine eating sounds and listening to a Picasso. Unsurprisingly, we may find this difficult but not for Neil Harbisson. Neil was born with achromatopsia, an extreme form of colour blindness that affects one in 33,000 people worldwide. Only able to see the world in shades of grey, he was determined to not only overcome this obstacle but to enhance his sensory experience like no other human being.

The merging of body and cybernetics
Terminator, Robocop, Neo, Darth Vader, the list is endless. Categorised as somewhere between robots and living organisms but often exceeding both in ability, cybernetic organisms are normally limited to sci-fi films. Now they are becoming a reality.

Cochlear implants for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, deep brain stimulators for Parkinson’s disease sufferers and thought-controlled bionic limbs are just a few examples of these technological advances. But rather than restoring function, researchers are now raising the game by enhancing it.

This is precisely what Neil Harbisson accomplished with the help of computer scientist Adam Montandon. A prosthetic, consisting of a webcam on an antenna connected to a computer, was programmed to interpret colours and translate each one into a specific sound wave. Neil was then able to listen to the sounds through headphones. After months of training and headaches, he was able to decipher each colour with a specific sound frequency.

The inner workings of the ‘eyeborg’
The computer has since been downsized to fit into Neil’s pocket, and a chip containing the software has been implanted directly into the bone at the back of his neck.

Most of the sounds we hear arrive at our eardrums as sound waves which are then converted to vibrations. Another route is via bone conduction which bypasses the eardrum. This is essentially how we hear our own voice.

Place a ticking watch between your teeth. The ticking is clearly audible and even more so after blocking both ears with your fingers, demonstrating that the sound is not travelling to your ears the usual way but through bone conduction. How does this work? The vibrations of sound waves travel through your skull bones to the ear and are then transmitted to the inner ear liquids. The vibrations then stimulate hair cells which in turn generate nerve impulses that travel to your brain. The details of this mechanism were poorly understood until a recent publication by researchers from Imperial College London and the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Germany.

Implanting the chip directly into Neil’s bone replaces the need for earphones. The chip software can detect an impressive 360 sound frequencies, but the chip also contains WiFi and Bluetooth connectors so Neil can hear images sent from mobile phones. Despite initially getting many rejections from surgeons, the antenna has also recently been surgically implanted into his skull. So, in 2004, Neil became the world’s first legally recognised cyborg. You can watch his TED talk where he discusses his transformation and new-founded abilities whilst dressed in colours representing C-major, of course.

Beauty is in the ear of the beholder
As previously mentioned, it is not solely the replacement of lost function but its enhancement that is gaining more attention. Owing to his new sense, Neil is able to extend his colour-to-sound scale; he can detect invisible colours within the ultraviolet (UV) and infrared ranges which lie outside the human visual spectrum. Neil claims hearing UV colours is beneficial, as this can act as a warning against exposure to damaging levels on sunny days.

As well as translating colours to sounds, Neil can also do the reverse whereby everyday sounds become colours. He has painted pictures with colours that represent the sounds of voices belonging to Martin Luther King and Hitler, and paintings representing the music of famous classical composers. Neil’s perceptions are now moulded by the way sounds and colours connect.

Enter the age of the cyborg
Neil Harbisson believes that by extending our senses we are able to change the way we perceive the world with current technology. This does not only apply to those with disabilities but to all human beings. In 2010, Neil founded the Cyborg Foundation, a non-profit organisation that promotes the ‘research, creation and promotion of projects related to extending and creating new senses and perceptions by applying technology to the human body’. In addition to helping people become cyborgs, the foundation also defends their rights.

Is it game-over for wearable technology? Are we delving into a world of implantable devices, opening up an array of communication pathways between man-made machinery and our own biological matter?We are undoubtedly entering the age of the cyborg, a revolution of human enhancement. Bionic superhumans may no longer be a far-fetched idea but, admittedly, this idea does not sit altogether comfortably with the most of us, just yet.

Tchumatchenko T, & Reichenbach T (2014). A cochlear-bone wave can yield a hearing sensation as well as otoacoustic emission. Nature communications, 5 PMID: 24954736

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