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Regarding the senses, and a Northpaw update

There is no more powerful teacher about the nature of human senses than the migraine. Within the headache’s state senses are heightened to the point of vicious permeating pain. Light stabs you, smells choke you, sounds can hit you with the force of a shovel. It is an argument whether you are sensing more or filtering less- I am with the latter camp.

Once, about 30 minutes post Imitrex during the worst of my migraine seasons the pain passed enough for me to process the sensory data incoming. I was walking along a one-way street in Cambridge with Aaron. I started telling him what each type of car was as it came up behind us, based on the sound of its engine and suspension. I could have guessed that some people can distinguish cars by sound, people *really* into cars, but I had no idea I was one of them. I found my new ability unsettling, as much for wondering what other canons of knowledge my brain wasn’t telling me about as for the oppression of unexpected information. At dinner I heard all the adjacent conversations simultaneously. I repeated snippets back to Aaron. I wanted to convey how entirely strange this experience was, but that was hopeless- describing senses themselves, rather than their integrated gestalt, is nearly impossible.

I found this to be true as well with the magnet. To this day I have still never found a way of explaining what it was like: electrical, oscillatory, a pure sensation, ‘like putting your hand in an ultrasonic cleaner’, sharp but not painful, tangy, metallic, synthetic, fluctuating, warm, tugging. I feel that I’m a good writer, in particular I’ve been told more than once that I have a gift for explanation. Explaining a sense, just the sense, stumps me.

I have the least useful, most common, barely present, probably most boring form of synesthesia there is. Every so often I taste colors. I don’t taste something and see the color, I don’t taste and associate the color, I just taste the color. It’s useless to ask me what, say, red tastes like. It’s not hot or sweet or anything like that, it tastes like red. It’s an awareness of an element of red in my food, on parr with sweet or hot rather than suggestive of them. That’s what tasting a color means. It happens to me once a year at most. It used to happen more, but it’s declined as I’ve gotten older. It was so natural, so clearly part of the food, that for most of my life I didn’t believe it was synesthesia. Everyone had to taste those occasional colors, they were just there. Come on. It was finally a pharmacist friend in Las Vegas that pinned it down. I had a drink that was pink, and tasted pink. That was unusual, tasted colors rarely matched visual colors, and it amused me a great deal. I handed it to my friend and said “Taste this! It tastes pink!” He said “Ok…” dragging out the k long enough to make it a 15 cent word at least. He tasted it, and told me I was a synesthete.

I suspect all new senses are somewhat synesthetic. You are leveraging an existing sensory infrastructure, running something new on old roads into associative areas of the brain. I ‘felt’ electricity, right now I ‘feel’ north on the left of my left ankle. Feel is touch, but touch is not a state of awareness. When it’s working as a sense my awareness is not the buzzing, it’s the awareness of north from the buzzing Northpaw. I make it dance around by spinning my office chair. Sometimes it doesn’t keep up. I believe I get nauseous and dizzy much quicker wearing the Northpaw than I do spinning my office chair without it. Right now I can feel it buzzing, and I can feel north. The Northpaw gives you a recombinant sense.

Here is the thing about a new sense: calibration in a bitch, because experiencing it subjectively is kind of the point. That a new sense is unreliable goes with the territory – all your senses are unreliable. Senses not about accuracy, but they kind of require that you think they are about accuracy. Senses are integrative. They create the world that you inhabit- but it’s important to understand that they create a world you can inhabit rather than the whole of, or even a slice of, the objective truth of your environment. This is one of the many reasons people make terrible eye witnesses.

What lets you process a new sense isn’t that it’s right, wrong, precise, superpowerful, or pathological, it’s that integration. What you need from a new sense is consistency, or it becomes part of the noise you are filtering all the time. You need to train and force yourself to rely on it just enough that it gets plugged into the continual associative process of creating the useful fiction you spend your days wrapped in. Integration and consistency means far more to us than accuracy.

The Northpaw is not always, in fact not usually, integrated into my perception. That was never really a problem with the magnet, so this is a bit of uncharted territory for me. Admittedly it’s only been three weeks since I first put one on, so it might actually be coming along nicely thankyouverymuch. I can say it’s begun to uproot and reassemble DC in my mind, which I’m thankful for. The two spacial maps were distressing, and at one point got me lost more than I was without the Northpaw. That is past, though I can’t say I never get lost. It hasn’t done that for me. The experience is similar to the magnet in that it’s been more realigning of reality than useful. It tells me more about how the world works rather than giving me immediately practical information. Grids aren’t quite so griddy anymore. As a native of LA, that’s actually quite an insight into the nature of the city.

My Northpaw article is due soon, but I hope to keep on with my study and reporting on it. I think there is more to learn from this little thing. (No idea what I’m talking about? See all entries on the Northpaw.)

Northpaw, end of first week.

No problem getting it through TSA. I even had my story ready, and it turned out to be entirely unneeded.

The Northpaw doesn’t work well when tilted. It’s unstable while driving, or a few other similar conditions. This seems reasonable for a compass, but it can be disorienting. I have now worn it in two cities, DC and SF, and I hope to add NY to the mix. As soon as I figure out where I’m living. My DC house flooded while I was in SF, and my life is pretty disrupted at the moment.

Since returning to DC I have found out that my mental spacial map of DC swapped north for west. I have found out that my idea of north isn’t quite what I thought it was. My mental north seems to be less a cardinal direction as the dominant direction, the top, the most important thing. I wonder if north is simply, from any direction, where Ada or the Pacific Ocean are. The map I have of DC is pretty hard, and turns out to be difficult and disorienting to dislodge. Much of my experience of the Northpaw is more about disrupting a mythical sense than augmenting life with a new one. I am trying to let the Northpaw win, but it’s slow going.

The one part that is broadening my horizons is how the Northpaw corrects the extreme smoothing we do to get along. Straight things aren’t as straight as we perceive them. Skory told me that in the time he was wearing this Northpaw he found that hiking trails are much more twisted that he thought they were. I find roads, paths, and bit of buildings drift in ways usually too subtle to notice. Not always, but just enough to be unsettling. I am beginning to wonder how much maps are myths we tell ourselves about man’s mastery of nature.

The fact that it goes wrong quite a bit is making it hard to integrate as a sensory experience. Whatever is happening with plane of inclination or possible software or hardware glitches, there’s also those times when something is just mucking with the magnetic field. Riding on the subway, both the BART and the Metro, is very magnetically unstable. And it’s not the Northpaw- if I put my hand compass on the floor, it goes crazy as well. I plan to try re-calibrating it by circling the compass with a rare earth magnet and seeing if that helps me find the proper locations for the buzzers- a non trivial task.

In LeDroit Park a man on a moped stopped me while I was on my bike and asked me about the anklet. He was clearly interested. I explained the concept behind the Northpaw and my project, and his eyes and smile grew. I pointed to north. He was nearly giddy. People love this thing, though I occasionally get comments that it looks like I’m under house arrest. Still, this idea of widening perception consistently fascinates people.

The Northpaw, Day 1: A new sense I didn’t know I didn’t have.

The magnetic implant had a magical quality to it. A long journey ending in a moment of bloodletting in a ritualistic setting, surrounded by cryptically ornamented people, and suddenly I had the full force of an entirely new sensation. I could see a new thing in the world. I practiced, but there was still something of the etherial to the situation, enhanced by the ritual with which it all began. The loss was just as otherworldly. One day without an apparent precipitating event my finger grew swollen and angry. It turned black and painful and I developed a fever, and as quickly as it had come, the new sense was gone. All I had left was the apparent the anger of the gods at my hubristic magic, to be satisfied only by a weeklong course of Cipro.

I was very sad. A dear friend gave me a hug and said “There, there. We’ll get you another new sense.”

The Northpaw feels a lot more like technology than magic. It’s based on the Feelspace, a project by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. It works by a series of mild buzzers hooked to an electronic compass and arrayed along a belt. the buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it. They just begin to always know where they are, and have perfect direction sense. The Northpaw, a kit under development by some friends at Noisebridge, does this in an anklet.

I am an extremely alpha tester of the Northpaw. We’ve run into some hardware problems, software problems, and problems caused by the size of my ankle and the direction of the zipper on my strap. We’ve fiddled, by which I mean Adam Skory has fiddled, while I watched and offered to make tea. I have served my universal purpose though- exposing flaws by suddenly having everything fall apart the second I touch it. (This is no criticism of Skory’s work. This happens with major corporations and large governmental computer systems as well. I’m just amazing at breaking things.)

After some trial I figured it was almost working right, good enough to take home and try to calibrate later. Calibration in this case is moving the motors slightly on the strip to make sure that they are actually in the right place for north on the small circumference offered by my ankle. I’ve always had a good native sense of direction, so I felt I could tell when the Northpaw was off.

I got out my compass and wandered around. Yes, I have a great sense of direction. It’s just wrong most of the time. I get around by what I have realized is extreme smoothing. It wanders well off the cardinal directions, and then gets yanked back by points of reference. I also hold an independent compass in my head for buildings I know that defines north as whatever I think of as the top of the building and has not much relationship to the cardinal directions.

The Northpaw isn’t perfect, but so far it’s better than I turn out to be. I am still in the alarming newness phase of awareness, figuring out how much I was wrong about things I didn’t know I thought about.

I will blog the experience as I go, and will be writing an article for h+ magazine summing up my time of augmentation.