Do not be afraid of Tongue-Tongue, he is only tasting you
Well, that was just about the first thing I thought of when I read this article, provided by Lynne. It appears that military researchers are hard at work on Tongue-Tongue technology for Navy SEALs. Specifically, they're working on a device that will route sonar signals to electrodes on the tongue and thence to the brain, allowing night vision, panoramic vision, and other "superhuman senses."
The device, known as "Brain Port," was pioneered more than 30 years ago by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist. Bach-y-Rita began routing images from a camera through electrodes taped to people's backs and later discovered the tongue was a superior transmitter.I just don't know what to say about this (besides "release the nice moth man, Tongue-Tongue; here is an individually wrapped slice of processed cheese"). The article isn't very well-written -- see "bluky-hand-held sonar devices," above -- so it's tough to figure out exactly how this technology will work. But if you think about the classic sensory homunculus, the tongue and lips certainly occupy a big swath of neural real estate. If the intention is to get signals directly to the brain, the tongue is a pretty direct conduit.
A narrow strip of red plastic connects the Brain Port to the tongue where 144 microelectrodes transmit information through nerve fibers to the brain. Instead of holding and looking at compasses and bluky-hand-held [sic] sonar devices, the divers can processes the information through their tongues, said Dr. Anil Raj, the project's lead scientist.
In testing, blind people found doorways, noticed people walking in front of them and caught balls. A version of the device, expected to be commercially marketed soon, has restored balance to those whose vestibular systems in the inner ear were destroyed by antibiotics.
But what is it like? The article doesn't say much about the phenomenology of tongue-munication. One Navy diver says it's like "feeling the outline of [an] image," which mostly implies to me that it's a very difficult experience to describe. I wonder whether it's similar to synesthesia, in that you're perceiving something you're not actually seeing (and perceiving it, furthermore, via a near-direct stimulation to the sensorimotor cortex). Is it experienced as an image? As some kind of tongue-image? As "just knowing" that something's there? Is the SEAL "feeling the outline" of the image on his tongue, or is it more like the experience of actually touching the object? Man, now I want to try it. Not enough to join the Navy, mind you, but I'd love to know what it means to see through your tongue. Or at the very least, what it's like to hold and look at a bluky-hand-held sonar device.
(I want a DVD of "The Tick" now, too, but there isn't one. What gives with that?)