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A Man Who Hears the Colors He Can't See

Reflections from a colorblind cyborg

By Rich_Maloof Jul 27, 2012 4:07PM

Photo: © TEDtalksDirector, via YouTube, http://aka.ms/cojwceNeurologists don’t yet understand synesthesia, a rare and fascinating condition in which the brain mixes up sensory perceptions. Depending on which senses are crossing wires, a synesthete will perceive sounds as different colors or register flavors as shapes. But never had synesthesia been deliberately engineered into the brain until a colorblind artist named Neil Harbisson turned himself into a sense-swapping cyborg.

Though he was born with complete colorblindness, a disorder known as achromatopsia, Harbisson is a very colorful character. Appearing onstage dressed in blinding yellow, blue, and pink — an outfit he “hears” as a happy C major chord — the artist delivered a TED Talk last month explaining how he and a colleague developed a visual sensor and software to convert color to sound. Light frequencies are changed to sound waves with the help of a camera mounted to his forehead and a chip embedded in his skull.

Harbisson doesn’t think of his eyeborg as a device for overcoming a disability, but rather as a means to super-ability. In fact, he thinks you should get one. “I think we should all have this wish to perceive things we cannot perceive,” he told the TED audience. That’s why he founded the Cyborg Foundation, “to encourage people to extend their senses by using technology as part of the body.”

To glimpse Harbisson’s world, or perhaps we should say to eavesdrop on it, check out some of the creations on his site. One video shares how he hears a person’s face: the lips are at a frequency 713.4067124 Hz and an eye sings at 744.275064 Hz. Once you’re on his wavelength you’ll see what’s funny about the video “Annoying Colors,” in which a couple dressed in clothing that really is best described as annoying, even without hearing it, are seen while a loud garbage truck passes. Then the girl noisily empties the air from a balloon into the guy’s ear.

Amazingly, Harbisson’s brain so readily adapted to the eyeborg that it effectively reverse-engineered the technology. Now he also has the ability to visualize sounds. A Justin Bieber song is a kaleidoscopic grid of pink and yellow squares. Visiting a grocery store, Harbisson says, is like walking into a nightclub. He has also recreated what he saw when he heard speeches by MLK and by Hitler (MLK is on the right).

Harbisson feels passionately that cyborg tech can improve our lives by expanding our minds. “Knowledge comes from our senses,” he concludes, “so if we extend our senses we will consequently extend our knowledge.”

Photo: © TEDtalksDirector, via YouTube, http://aka.ms/cojwce

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