Did you see an article on the news recently about fitting a third thumb to the human body?
It was one of those more jolly pieces at the end of the news designed to intrigue and to move on from the generally grim stories that had gone before.
Here’s the headline: ‘Encouraging Research Finds Brain Adjusts to Third Thumb’.
Inspired by an award-winning graduate project from the Royal College of Art in London, neuroscientists from UCL are exploring the brain's reaction to coping with additional body parts.
Additional body parts? Interesting.
The robo thumb can be made on a 3-D printer so it's really easy to create and customise. 30 participants were trained to use it over five days, taking it home and using it in daily tasks. They were specifically trained to increase cooperation between the robo thumb and the hand it was attached to - so lots of things like picking up a glass of wine.
These participants learnt the basics of the thumb manipulation very quickly - it is controlled by their toes! Subtle pressure on sensors attached under the big toes manipulates the device through a wireless connection. (Are there new implications for losing wifi here!) They even learnt to use the thumb whilst thinking about other things - building a tower of bricks or doing a maths problem for example, or even when blindfolded.
The thumb quickly felt like a part of their body i.e. their motor control extended to the robo thumb.
So was their proprioception (the felt sense of where all our body parts are) adapting to the add-on? Interestingly, the researchers discovered subtle changes in the felt experience of the rest of the hand that had been wearing the thumb - it became slightly less distinct than normal, although this seemed to subside after a week.
Body-brains are doing amazing things here.
So where does this research lead? What lies ahead?
Clearly there are important implications for overcoming damage and disability.
But these researchers also have their eye on adapting and enhancing the human body, to help people who have jobs where they could use machine assistance - like lifting heavyweights for example. And who knows what else? “With the aim of adding to human’s possibilities, rather than replacing what’s lost, the prosthetic has the potential to rapidly alter the way we live our lives.”
Rapidly alter the way we live our lives.
At one level it's all very exciting. There are some important developments here. But we need to recognise that we are contemplating these extensions to our body, in a culture in which we don't focus a great deal on the lived experience of the body we're born with.
Embodied living/learning/well-being is not mainstream activity - at best it's an add-on. We don't educate our children to live in their bodies as much as we encourage them to live in their heads. We don’t encourage our children to embody their lives.
The technology is exciting and it’s just around the corner. There are tech companies waiting to make a mint. Can we just take a pause, avoid being mesmerised by the fantastic opportunities that technology provides, and weigh up the implications. Not in order to stop the technological advance (as if we could), but to be active about our human future.
We may lose something very important about our humanity if we don’t.
Bring on the new solutions. But let's also recognise the deep importance of supporting our children to be as embodied as they know in their bones they need to be. Watch them moving, exploring their lives in the body and there's no doubt that they know it.
As we create amazing new opportunities for generations ahead, let’s make sure we support bodies to become the fully sensory things they are. Now. The felt experience of the body (a huge part of our humanity) already plays second fiddle to our intellect in our education culture. We need to balance this now more than ever, as we recognise both the delights and dangers of mingling technology with our flesh and blood.