Blind Humans Can Learn To Sense Like a Rat With Whiskers

Finger-censor “whiskers” could someday help blind people sense surrounding objects like a rodent

Mixxie Sixty Seven

Rodents like rats use a sense alien to humans, called whisking. By constantly moving their facial whiskers back and forth, they can locate and identify objects around them, even in the dark. Researchers writing for the Journal of Neuroscience decided to see whether this ability may be useful for humans, and if so, how their subjects went about processing the new sensory input system.

To test their idea, the scientists attached a “whisker”—a 30-cm long piece of elastic with position and force sensors at its base—to blindfolded participants. They placed two poles at arm’s distance on either side of their subjects, with one a bit farther back than the others. The subjects attempted to find the poles using just the whiskers, then to determine which pole was the one located further away from them. The researchers continued to move the poles towards one another as the experiment progressed, until the participants could no longer distinguish which one was closer or further away.

To the scientists’ surprise, the subjects adapted to their new sense so well that within the first day they could identify which pole was set back as little as 8 cm. The next day, the subjects’ skills had improved even more. Now, most could locate poles down to just 3 cm, and the best of the bunch could identify poles down to 1 cm.

“Our vision for the future is to help blind people ‘see’ with their fingers. Small devices that translate video to mechanical stimulation, based on principles of active sensing that are common to vision and touch, could provide an intuitive, easily used sensory aid,” the scientists said in a statement.

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