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Machines with Brains // plastic fantastic

These real-life cyborgs are changing their brains by enhancing their bodies

By Natasha Frost

Mohsen Minaei doesn’t look much like a cyborg. Yet he’s made a number of alterations to his body that are decidedly non-human. 

The geophysicist from San Antonio, Texas doesn’t wear a RoboCop-style helmet or shoot lasers from his eyes. Instead, he’s experimented with a magnet in his left hand, to make it easier to pick up paper clips, and a chip in his right arm that gives a constant reading of his temperature. And then there’s the device on his chest, attached with piercings, that vibrates whenever he faces north. It’s called North Sense, and about 300 people around the world have one.

Seem a little needless? That’s because it’s not really about facing north, says Liviu Babitz, a fellow body-hacker who invented the chip. Instead, Babitz believes that the tingling feeling that he, Minaei and around 300 others now experience is helping to create new neural pathways in their brains. “So instead of my reality being built from ‘x’ number of elements, now it’s ‘x plus one’ number of elements that I understand reality by,” he says.

Researchers have found that new experiences carry on molding our brains, and how they learn, right the way through our lives. ”Your brain remains plastic until your death,” says Adrien Peyrache, a neuroscientist at McGill University, who points to a 2011 study of London cab drivers, published in the journal Current Biology.  Scientists at University College London followed 79 trainee taxi drivers as they learned “the Knowledge”—the fiendishly tricky task of memorizing 25,000 London streets. As they progressed, the researchers snapped images of their brain structures with an MRI. Those who had committed the atlas to memory eventually had a greater volume of nerve cells in the brain’s hippocampus than they did before.

It’s possible this navigational chip could do something similar, Peyrache says. “Perhaps with North Sense you’ll actually become more aware of how you can navigate by yourself without any external help,” he says. “Doing this will be good training for your brain. The more you use your brain very generally, actually, the later neurodegenerative disease will start.” Babitz has been working with London-based researchers to see how his invention might be able to change the brain and its capabilities, including doing tests in which he’s blindfolded, spun around, and asked to return to the point of origin. (He’s getting quite good at it—unlike non-North Sense users, who are apparently “totally useless.”)

Minaei’s sense of direction has also improved. When he faces north in his home, he says, he imagines himself facing north in a nearby park or in his office. “They come to my mind altogether,” he says. “It’s exactly like a highlighter for memories. I can remember them stronger and they are all connected.” It’s even changed how he works as a geophysicist, orienting himself  in the field without the need for paper or electronic maps.

But he’s found another benefit which has nothing to do with direction whatsoever. Minaei has been taking piano lessons—and his keyboard faces north. When he plays certain chords, he says, “I try to move my body so it vibrates. It has added another layer of information to piano playing.”