Digital synesthesia: Tricking your brain into experiencing smell as temperature in virtual reality

Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. A synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. Now, computer scientist Jas Brooks and colleagues from the University of Chicago are creating a kind of digital synesthesia by using odors to trick your brain into experiencing different temperatures in virtual reality. For example, capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers, triggers a warm feeling while eucalyptol elicits a cool sensation. Evan Ackerman explains in IEEE Spectrum:

The trigeminal nerve [in your nose] connects your brain to most of your face, and it carries a bunch of sensory information, including both smell and temperature. The actual temperature-sensing mechanism comes from transient receptor potential (TRP) ion channels, and while we can skip over exactly how these work, the important thing to understand is that some of these TRP channels can get triggered by either skin temperature or certain kinds of aerosolized chemicals. You’ve almost certainly experienced this for yourself: When you smell peppermint, it feels cold, because the menthol in the peppermint is triggering a receptor in your trigeminal nerve called TRPM8 that responds to both the menthol and temperatures under 25 °C. On the other end of things, capsaicin (which you can find in hot peppers) triggers the TRPV1 receptor, which also responds to temperatures above 42 °C. That’s the key: One receptor that can be triggered by temperature or a chemical, but sends the same temperature sensory message to your brain. The researchers describe this as “a perceptual duality,” and if you aerosolize one of these chemicals and puff it up your nose, you’ll feel a temperature change.[...]

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The chemist who made big bucks hoaxing ghost photos

The mid-19th century was the heyday for séances, mediums, and psychics. In Boston, a chemist and silver engraver named William H. Mumler saw an opportunity to mix the hot new technology of photography with paranormal activity to make some big bucks. So he announced that if you sat for a picture in his studio, your dead relative might just turn up for the photo opp. Mumler's secret? Ye olde magical double exposure that he stumbled upon after accidentally taking a self-portrait on an already-used negative. From Mysterious Universe:

Typically, he would take a glass photographic plate that held the image of the dead person in life and simply place it over a new glass plate meant to hold the image of the customer. When the photo was then developed the two images would be fused together into a composite and voila, ghost photo. On many occasions Mumler did not have access to an actual photo of the deceased, and so he got creative, using other figures that were blurred just enough that the client could believe that it was the presence of the lost loved one, easy enough to do with a bereaved, gullible person who is willing to do anything to see them again.[...]

Mumler might have been able to keep this going for many more years if he had been a little more careful. He started producing ever more outlandish ghost photographs, including even one of the dead president Abraham Lincoln photobombing a picture of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln.

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The mystical Kabbalah roots of natural language processing

With Siri and Alexa, the computer science of natural language processing (NLP) is finally ready for prime time. In IEEE Spectrum, Oscar Schwartz wrote a fascinating essay linking NLP, "linguistic interactions between humans and machines," with 13th century Jewish mysticism. I've always enjoyed smart writing that pulls threads between technology and occult practices, and Schwartz's short piece is a fine example of that. From IEEE Spectrum:

In the late 1200s, a Jewish mystic by the name of Abraham Abulafia sat down at a table in his small house in Barcelona, picked up a quill, dipped it in ink, and began combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in strange and seemingly random ways. Aleph with Bet, Bet with Gimmel, Gimmel with Aleph and Bet, and so on.

Abulafia called this practice “the science of the combination of letters.” He wasn’t actually combining letters at random; instead he was carefully following a secret set of rules that he had devised while studying an ancient Kabbalistic text called the Sefer Yetsirah. This book describes how God created “all that is formed and all that is spoken” by combining Hebrew letters according to sacred formulas. In one section, God exhausts all possible two-letter combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.

By studying the Sefer Yetsirah, Abulafia gained the insight that linguistic symbols can be manipulated with formal rules in order to create new, interesting, insightful sentences. To this end, he spent months generating thousands of combinations of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and eventually emerged with a series of books that he claimed were endowed with prophetic wisdom.

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Humans have a sixth sense for Earth's magnetic field

A new study suggests that humans can subconsciously sense Earth's magnetic field. While this capability, called magnetoreception, is well known in birds and fish, there is now evidence that our brains are also sensitive to magnetic fields. The researchers from Caltech and the University of Tokyo measured the brainwaves of 26 participants who were exposed to magnetic fields that could be manipulated. Interestingly, the brainwaves were not affected by upward-pointing fields. From Science News:

Participants in this study, who all hailed from the Northern Hemisphere, should perceive downward-pointing magnetic fields as natural, whereas upward fields would constitute an anomaly, the researchers argue. Magnetoreceptive animals are known to shut off their internal compasses when encountering weird fields, such as those caused by lightning, which might lead the animals astray. Northern-born humans may similarly take their magnetic sense “offline” when faced with strange, upward-pointing fields...

Even accounting for which magnetic changes the brain picks up, researchers still don’t know what our minds might use that information for, (Caltech neurobiologist and geophysicist Joseph) Kirschvink says. Another lingering mystery is how, exactly, our brains detect Earth’s magnetic field. According to the researchers, the brain wave patterns uncovered in this study may be explained by sensory cells containing a magnetic mineral called magnetite, which has been found in magnetoreceptive trout as well as in the human brain.

"Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from Alpha-band Activity in the Human Brain" (eNeuro)

"Evidence for a Human Geomagnetic Sense" (Caltech) Read the rest

An artificial intelligence populated these photos with glitchy humanoid ghosts

Two of the MIT researchers behind the provocative Deep Angel project, an algorithm that digitally erases objects from photos, have now delivered a strange and beautiful system to "conjure phantasms into being." Read the rest

The occult magick of Pokemon Go

At the Daily Grail, Greg Taylor posted a fascinating essay about the Pokemon Go experience seen through the lens of medieval occult practices in which "incorporeal entities have sometimes been as much a part of the landscape as the everyday physical objects surrounding us that we can touch and see." As Gregory Benford once said, riffing on Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." From the Daily Grail:

The modern, scientific view has these entities as products of the imagination; our pattern-seeking minds combining with our evolutionary survival instincts and desire to feel in control, to create phantoms out of nothing. The 'other world' does not exist; its imaginary denizens therefore cannot invade our own world and affect us, as they don't exist in the first place.

How ironic, then, that the modern scientific world has now created its own 'other world' - the world of computer-generated, virtual realities - and the creatures that populate any of those worlds can now manifest within our own plane through augmented/mixed reality. For those with phones to see...

This month, the infernal gates to this other world were thrown open. Within a week of its release, the game Pokémon Go amassed a similar number of active users to that of Twitter - with all those players running about their neighbourhoods, seeking the incorporeal monsters now inhabiting our environment, that can only be seen through a special, magical scrying device.

"Walkers Between Worlds" (Daily Grail) Read the rest

Ventriloquism's past and present

At The Wire, performance artist Sarah Angliss explores the weird history and present state of ventriloquism, from the 16th century exorcism of a demonic dummy to Angliss's own robotic stage companions. Read the rest

Video: The Velvet Underground's multimedia happenings

An excellent clip about Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground's multimedia performances, from PBS's equally fantastic Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006), viewable in its entirety online (Part 1 and Part 2).

Jonas Mekas, avant-garde filmmaker, on the performance: “I saw a mystical impresario, or sorcerer, structuring of temperaments, egos, and personalities who maneuvered it all into sound image and light symphonies of tremendous emotional and mental pitch…and somewhere in the shadow, totally unnoticeable but following every second and every detail of it was Andy Warhol." Read the rest