Engineer studying "skin vision"

A researcher at Tel Aviv University suggests that humans might be able to "see" with their skin. Engineering professor Leonid Yaroslavsky hopes that through biomimicry, new kinds of imaging technology might be developed that forego obviate traditional optics. Yaroslavsky presents his theories on the subject in a chapter (PDF) of a new book titled "Advances in Information Optics and Photonics." From an American Friends of Tel Aviv University press release:
"Some people have claimed that they possess the ability to see with their skin," says Prof. Yaroslavsky. Though biologists usually dismiss the possibility, there is probably a reasonable scientific explanation for "skin vision." Once understood, he believes, skin vision could lead to new therapies for helping the blind regain sight and even read.

Skin vision is not uncommon in nature. Plants orient themselves to light, and some animals -- such as pit vipers, who use infrared vision, and reptiles, who possess skin sensors -- can "see" without the use of eyes. Skin vision in humans is likely a natural atavistic ability involving light-sensitive cells in our skin connected to neuro-machinery in the body and in the brain, explains Prof. Yaroslavsky.
"Seeing through the skin" (


  1. I know most of us have infrared vision with our skin, at least. Try this: next time you’re near a roaring fire, close your eyes and have a friend wave their arm in between you and the fire. You can clearly sense where their arm is because the sensation of heat is absent there.

    I see no reason why some people might not have skin cells that are sensitve to the visible spectrum as well.

  2. I could buy into the idea that other senses such as touch and kinestethia might inform visual components of our perception…but I feel like a distinction must be made because I can’t see sensory impulses from nerves in the skin affecting our visual cortex. That said, the true visual stimuli probably do merge with other sensory data such as touch elsewhere in the brain. This would not be sensation, but cognition — probably in a combination of conscious and subconscious processing — to contribute toward our perception and formation of a mental “image” in our minds.

    That said, I’m not a neuroscientist…just an enhanced mind:P

  3. I read years ago an article in which a man who had lost his site described how he used a combination of “face vision” and his hearing to navigate through the physical world.

  4. How about this experiment: make different-colored squares. Enclose them between sealed sheets of glass (so that any chemicals from the dyes can not be detected, but the color can still be visually ascertained). Touch the colored squares to subjects who are either completely blind or wearing blindfolds. The subjects would not be able to see the colors, so the experiment would observe whether they still pick up on visual information from the different colors, such as wavelength of light, enough to consistently identify similar colors and differentiate them from other colors. Especially with the blindfolded group who has the experience of seeing color and other visual information, it would be interesting to see if the subjects are able to accurately recognize colors by touch.

  5. I had understood that reports of “skin vision” typically turned out to be sensitivity to heat (as Dagfooyo mentioned) and to minute air currents.

    So if you get a tan, will your skin go blind?

    (There’s another snarky remark about freckles and spots before one’s eyes, but I haven’t worked it out yet.)

  6. If an object moves in a room without making any sound directly, most people can hear the change in the room’s reflections of ambient noise. Not everyone notices it, but your ears are picking it up. Same with heat and vibration. This is probably partially why people’s hair stands on end when they’re scared.

  7. Keep in mind this is the same country where so-called scientists also believed that Uri Geller’s claims. It’s important to establish that a phenomenon actually exists before running wild with hypotheses about how it might work.

  8. Years ago when I was in college, I conducted an experiment. In the dark, I opened my copy of “Key Monuments in the History of Architecture” and placed my open palm on a random page. I tried to visualize the image on the page. I found myself imagining a dark disk. I thought to myself, Well, this is baloney, because no building looks like a dark circle.

    I turned the light on and examined the page in question. My hand had been touching an enlarged photo of an old, dark coin with a building on it. The coin looked just like the dark circle I’d imagined.

    I never really understood how that happened.

  9. #9: “most people can hear the change in the room’s reflections of ambient noise”. You’ve got it right there. “Skin vision” has long since been (largely) explained as primitive echolocation.

    I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of other kinds of “skin vision”, but for the most part (at least 95% or so) when someone says they can see with their “skin” it’s actually that they are perceiving vague shapes with their ears and the sounds of their own footsteps, etc.

    I’ve read about a blind man who could drive a car this way, and about a blind child who could discern fairly complex shapes by making clicking noises as he walked. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d look up the links.

  10. I’ve often thought a magical God should have given us perfect ‘skin vision.’ (or at least let our souls do our seeing for us – don’t souls ‘see’ during OBE’s?)

    Optics and eye lenses seem so ‘engineered,’ and hence the product of evolution, not the product of a magical being.

  11. I’ve seen this before…

    Greg Egan’s “Teranesia” has a character who wears a pad on his back connected to a visor he wears so that his skin serves as gateways to his brain for the pseudo-vision.

    The book had awesome concepts(like most Egan works) but was overall pretty bleh.

  12. David: It’s “forgo” rather than “foregoe” (although I think you really mean something more like “obviate”).

  13. I recently read a book called “The Eye” (by Simon Ings, highly recommended), all about sight/vision/eyes. Near the beginning it describes an experimental system for blind people to “see” via low-res cameras connected to tactile pads on their stomach (or maybe chest?).

    The resulting “image”, while not good for fine detail, enabled the subjects to navigate around buildings.

    Sounds similar to Realyst’s comment above, only for reals!

  14. Old stuff – my Ma had eyes in the back of her head, and she always said “Knock it off!” without turning her head when I was lookout for us boys – I swear she could tell if someone was watching her from beyond her peripheral vision. Couldn’t hide a thing from her.

  15. #11 posted by David Pescovitz , September 11, 2008 2:59 PM

    As opposed to countries where so-called scientists believe the bible’s claims?

    Point taken; I shouldn’t pick on Tel Aviv scientists just because that’s where Uri Geller is from, even if the country is basically a theocracy. But I stand by the statement that scientists should verify that a phenomenon actually exists before spending millions trying to figure out how it works.

    That’s also why I think people are wasting their time trying to “study” UFO engineering and bigfoot biology.

  16. #23! So can I! I worked in a library for about a year behind the circulation desk and my co-workers (and regular patrons) all thought I was crazy for being able to feel the barcode scanner whenever I waved my arm or hand underneath it!

  17. Back in the mid-sixties some Russian researchers were claiming they had experimental evidence for “dermo-optical perception” which involved some apparent optical sensors (not just perception of heat aka IR) in the skin. However, their experimental results could not be repeated in a scientific setting and interest faded.

  18. Oops, that was video 2 of 5, sorry, look in the Related Links to start with the first video. It’s not skin vision, but it is fascinating. They take him to a lab (UCLA?) and do a bunch of tests to see how accurately he can identify things. Very impressive stuff.

  19. Despite reading through the entire article, I still have no idea how Prof Yaroslavsky’s new device is supposed to work. Is he talking about light sensors being installed everywhere without lenses in front of them? That’s hardly revolutionary.

    When I read the article, I imagined a camera, hooked up to a device strapped to your back that forms raised images against your skin. The blind can see again. The sighted can have a 3rd (4th, 5th) eyes. All around vision. Never have anyone creep up on you again.

    It need not be limited to sight. An artificial cochlea strapped to your arm causes sensation different parts of your skin, depending on the frequency of the sound input. You could listen to mp3 all day without earphone cables dangling out of your ears. It’ll be great for handphones too.

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