16-06 Segment 2: Biohackers: Searching for the Sixth Sense

 

Synopsis: Do humans have more than five senses? Can we detect more in our environment than what we normally perceive through sight, sound, smell, touch and taste? Our guest wanted to know, so she spoke to scientists, engineers, and biohackers about learning more from our five senses and perhaps even finding a 6th sense.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Kara Platoni, lecturer in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and author of the book, We Have the Technology: How biohackers, foodies, physicians, and scientists are transforming human perception one sense at a time.

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Biohackers: Searching for a “Sixth Sense”

Marty Peterson: In a 1954 lecture, American astronomer and cosmologist Edwin Powell Hubble wrote, “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls this adventure Science.” Scientists are doing the same thing more than 60 years later, but they’re engaged in expanding those “five” senses into “six, or even more, and searching for ways of enhancing the human experience. They do this through technology…but not just the standard silicon chips and digital drives…

Kara Platoni: A lot of people when they think of technology, they think computers, electronics, wearable devices, robots…

Peterson: That’s Kara Platoni, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and author of the book, We Have the Technology: How biohackers, foodies, physicians, and scientists are transforming human perception one sense at a time…

Platoni: I also take a much broader approach, which is technology is anything made by people as a tool. Language is a technology, medicine is a technology, culture, social forces, those are all technology. All of these things influence how we understand the world because they influence how we pay attention to things, how perceive the world around us.

Peterson: The people who are using these tools to transform perceptions are called biohackers. Sounds scary, but Platoni says they’re not the villains…

Platoni: Don’t worry, these guys are totally benign. You know the hacker has some bad connotations that with computer hackers and people who are going to do something malignant to your computer. Not the case with biohackers. Biohackers are focused on self-improvement. They’re very, very curious about the world around them and the idea of pushing what the human brain and body can do. I was specifically interested in this kind of mechanical engineering arm of the biohacker world, people who call themselves “grinders” who are developing electronic devices that they can actually put in the body itself. And these are people who are wondering, “Well, if I implant myself with a magnet, would I be able to sense magnetic fields or metals in the area around me? What if I created kind of an in-hand compass that would light up in a color whenever I faced the direction north?”

Peterson: One of the places Platoni looked to find cutting edge biohacking is in taste research. In school, many of us learned that our tongues could only perceive four tastes: sweet, salty, bitter and sour…

Platoni: And then in the year 2000, along came this new idea, this concept called “umami” or “savory.” And that was accepted as a fifth taste. Scientists discovered a receptor on the tongue that locks with the amino acid, glutamate, which is just the way the sweet receptor works by locking with a molecule of sugar. And they accepted, okay this is the fifth taste, and people learned to perceive it. It’s something that is very appreciated and beloved now. There are even entire restaurant chains based on the idea of umami or savoriness. This is the taste that’s characteristic of things like caramelized onions, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, grilled meats, like a tomato paste, anything that has that really deep, savory taste. So once the fifth taste came along, a lot of researchers said, “Well, why couldn’t there be six? Why couldn’t there be seven? Or a thousand or even a million?” So all of these lab groups all over the world are searching for candidates for the sixth taste.

Peterson: Platoni visited a number of these laboratories to find out for herself how we perceive taste and what other tastes could be added to the five we have now…

Platoni: I tasted fat which is one of the contenders which, I’ll tell you right now, does not taste like bacon, does not taste like ice cream. I tasted calcium, which is another contender. There are some labs that are arguing that water is a taste or that carbon dioxide is a taste separate from the feeling you get from carbonation bubbles. And there is this other candidate out there right now that is maybe not a basic taste, nobody can quite agree on what it is, but it’s an idea called “kokumi.” And the idea is that this is something that doesn’t taste like anything, but makes the other basic tastes taste better.

Peterson: Another sense related to taste is smell. Platoni says that researchers are looking into the link between aroma and memories …

Platoni: I didn’t know when I started researching this book that the first clinically observable sign of Alzheimer’s and some other neurodegenerative disorders is loss of the sense of smell. First of all, don’t worry if your sense of smell isn’t as sharp as it was when you were a kid, that’s normal. It happens to just about everybody. But with Alzheimer’s it is a much bigger decline and the way it manifests itself isn’t that you stop smelling altogether. It’s that it becomes harder and harder to differentiate between different scents. They get harder and harder to tell apart, you get more mixed up.

Peterson: Platoni found a hospital where caregivers are using this knowledge to help Alzheimer’s patients develop a connection – a sense — between aroma and memories and, in turn, use it to communicate more and better…

Platoni: I went to a hospital in Paris, France, where a group of volunteers from the cosmetics industry are trying a thing that they call “olfactive therapy.” And the idea is, they bring in all of these scents, they’ve created all of these scents that they think would be very resonant for somebody who grew up in France, like the smell of bread, the smell of wine, the smell of berries, the smell of all of these things that are associated with French foods, or the trees you would smell in the woods if you went out for a hike. And they bring these scents in and they dip little paper wands into them and they wave the wands under the patient’s nose and they try to help the person recall and name the scent and talk about it. And the amazing thing about olfactive therapy is, is that even if the person doesn’t get the scent right, it still helps them recall memories, it helps them talk to other people about what they’re thinking about. Which, for people with very advanced dementia, is hard to do. A lot of those people have lost the ability to recall names, to remember the right identification for words, they withdraw socially because it becomes hard to communicate, and giving something to smell that brings up a memory, sometimes a beloved childhood memory, helps them talk and communicate with the world again.

Peterson: We’ve all heard about the “pain” of a broken heart, but is there such a thing? And can modern analgesics help alleviate some of that pain? Platoni wanted to find out about the connection between social pain, such as rejection, and physical pain like you have if you sprain your ankle, and she found some scientists who were working on it…

Platoni: The idea that some researchers have been exploring for several years now with very good results is the idea that your brain processes physical pain, so that the pain of that snapped ankle, in the same part of your brain and in a very similar way to the way it processes social pain, the pain of rejection, the pain of usually a break-up or perhaps being rejected from a job or a sports team or something like that. So they’ve done these very cool experiments where they said, “Okay, what if we put people in the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner and we reject them. Basically, we make them play a game and the other people who are playing the game keep leaving them out. Will that rejection hurt less if we give them Tylenol?” Or, really, the generic acetaminophen, the thing you might take for that bad ankle. And they find out, yes, it works. And so they tried it the other way around. They said, “What if we put people in the scanner and we give them physical pain?” They kind of very carefully administer a small burning sensation. But while they’re doing this, what if we show them a picture of the person that they’re in love with? Will love be a painkiller? And yes, it is. That works too.

Peterson: Something else the researchers found was that social pain lasts longer than physical pain…

Platoni: And they think that’s because you can recreate social pain by thinking about it in a way that you can’t recreate physical pain. One of the researchers I really enjoyed talking to, Dr. Naomi Eisenberger of UCLA. She has spent a lot time for her work trying to recreate the pain of childbirth because that was the worst pain that she’d ever been in in her life, and she just can’t do it. But she can sit there in her office and very easily recreate the pain of a break-up. It’s just something you can think yourself back into that mental state again.

Peterson: And what about those magnets Platoni talked about at the beginning of our story? Do people really have them embedded under their skin? Why?

Platoni: A lot of the biohackers talked about this kind of sense of being profoundly blind. That there’s a lot of information out in the universe that humans can’t tap into that other animals can. So, this idea of implanting magnets, which, by the way, don’t do this at home. These are all done by professional body piercers and body modification artists with kind of specially made magnets – not what you can find in the store. One of the first implants that a lot of people have tried is getting this magnet in the hand. And it’s kind of a bid to see if they can sense the world around them in a new way. And a lot of people who have them say, “Yeah. You know, now that I have it in my hand I can feel hidden metal, I can feel a staple in a piece of paper, I can feel it when my hard drive spools up when I run my laptop, I can feel the refrigerator when I walk past it, when I walk past speakers I can feel vibration from the speakers, that sort of thing.” And I’d say, “Well, why would you want to do this? What does it mean to you?” And they’d say, “Well, it alters my sense of being, my sense of self. I’m able to perceive something about the world that I couldn’t otherwise.”

Peterson: And that’s what it’s all about, this biohacking business is all about: transforming your perception of the world through your known senses and possibly finding a new one. Platoni hopes readers will realize that the universe is huge, and there’s a lot for us to discover about it and ourselves…

Platoni: It made me really feel that humans are just a “maker” species. We are a maker, hacker, engineering species that is curious about the world and want to not only be able to do more, to accomplish more, but to perceive more, to experience more. And I thought that’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool that our curiosity drives us to keep wondering what the limits might be.

Peterson: You can read all about researchers pushing the sensory envelope in Kara Platoni’s book, We Have the Technology, available now in stores and online. She invites listeners to visit her website at KaraPlatoni.com. To find out more about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

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