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Extra Sensory Perceptions: Sensing Magnetic Fields

A Pacinian Corpuscle

The first known, successful implant of an extra sensory perception to detect magnetic fields the person with the new sense was near, occurred in 2005, when a small piece of neodymium, which is a rare earth metal, that forms a permanent magnet, was coated in a thin layer of silicon, and implanted into an emergency medical technician's finger.

Todd Huffman, an emergency medical technician at St. Louis University Hospital Neurology unit, worked with implant artist Steve Haworth to add the new sense to his body. He desired the ability to tell when he was near anything that gave off a strong magnetic field, which might interfere with a pacemaker or other implanted medical equipment.

The magnet senses the presence of the field, and pulls slightly towards it. This pulling disturbs the tissue of the finger, stretching it, and triggering the deformation of pacinian corpuscles all around the fingertip. With practice, it became possible to determine field strength and direction in real-time, from these pulling sensations.

The pacinian corpuscle consists of a single nerve fibre, it's sheath stripped, in the center of what could best be described as a gas bag onion. Concentric layers of webbed sheathing surround the nerve, radiating outwards like the skins of an onion. Bearing a strong resemblance to cargo netting in their basic function, these layers serve the opposite purpose. They are there to detect and amplify any change in the pressure around them. This change is then detected by the specific way the corpuscle deforms, and this is in turn, transmitted down the nerve as an electrical signal pattern.

Stretching, compressing, to the corpuscle, it is all the same. The magnets work, by being implanted behind the layer of corpuscles clustered around the fingertip. As it pulls it compresses some, drags others. Very much in the same way as dragging a pattern of metal beads behind glass, with a magnet. The corpscles shift in large numbers, to follow the magnet's movement. Unlike the beads, they settle back into place afterwards as the natural tissue elasticity pulls them back.

The fingertips are chosen precisely because of this concentration of corpuscles. Anywhere where the density is lower, this sensory interface does not work. Lips and erogenous zones would also function, but are not recommended, due to the known side effects.

Sensory Experimentation Somatosensory Extension

Reflections by Todd M Huffman [excerpt]

I am now able to perceive magnetic fields in ways not naturally possible. The sensation is different than holding a magnet, as the neurons are stimulated with a higher resolution. With the implant I can detect subtle changes in polarity and strength that I cannot when equipped with a magnet in the conventional manner. Yet the most significant observations have come from another property of implants, their relative permanence to exogenous artifacts. Being able to perceive magnetic fields has expanded my conscious perception of magnetic fields 'in the wild'.

In one sensory incident, I was walking out of the library, and I sensed the inductive anti-theft device. I have walked in and out of dozens of libraries hundreds of times, and never once have I thought about the magnetic fields passed through me to prevent me from stealing a book. I have been intellectually aware of the mechanism, but never paid attention until now. Another time I opened a can of cat food for my girlfriend's pets, and I sensed the electric motor running. My hand was about six inches away from the electric can opener, and I was able to sense where the motor was inside of the assembly. Again it brought my attention to a magnetic source that I understood intellectually, but would have otherwise been unaware of. I feel I am one step closer to fully grokking the reality I inhabit.

The experience of my implant is not nearly as rich as my visual or auditory sensation, but nevertheless after a week it has dramatically changed the way I think about my daily sensory experience. A small magnet embedded in a finger may seem like a trivial exercise. I find it difficult to explain the significance, somewhat akin to trying to explain to a blind person what it is to see. The problem isn't defining the technical characteristics of the visual system, but one of trying to convey what conscious perception of certain wave frequencies does to the way a person conceptualises the world.

In modifying my body I have ever so slightly altered the way I organise the world in my mind. I eagerly await the day in which I can integrate more elaborate senses into myself. With every passing minute I try to see radiant heat, hear radio waves, and think the thoughts of those that pass by. And by better understanding what I cannot feel, I can fully appreciate what I have now.

The Down Side

All is not sunshine and roses, however. There have been found to be very real, and serious health risks to having magnetic senses implanted, that should give anyone pause.

For starters, even the very slight stretching and compression of living tissue that Todd experiences, if carried on over a protracted period of time, causes an effect very similar to white finger. White finger, sometimes also termed dead finger, is one of the dangers of vibration based haptic immersion over an extended period of time. It derives its name from the colour the body part initially turns on the onset of this condition. It is caused by a loss of blood flow by prolonged exposure to vibration, the same as experienced with heavy machinery, and despite the name, it can occur on any part of the body. If exposure continues past the tissue bleaching, possible side effects include that body part turning numb, an increased sensitivity to cold, and finally, necrosis ? where the tissue literally starts to die off.

With a neodymium magnet, you don't get the vibration effect, as the pull of whichever magnetic field is nearby, is steady. What you do get however, is steady compression. The problem here, is that the compressed soft tissue simply dies away. This is because the compression effect has the result of crushing the small capillaries that ferry blood to the fingertips, or other near-surface bodily areas. Without this blood supply, the end, comes quickly for those cells. Many of the same symptoms are exposed before this occurs. A problem is, the steady compression actually hastens their arrival, over a rapid vibration.

Another great problem is neodymium itself. The rare earth metal is toxic to human tissue. This is why it is coated in silicon to begin with. Should the silicone coating - which is after all, only thin - break, or tear, you wind up with the situation of a toxic element, which the immune system will identify and attack, being present within the body.

Documented cases of toxicity have been reported, although by ad large neodymium's effects on body tissue under prolonged exposure are still unknown. What we do know is that in the short term, the tissue near a compromised implant first swells up, then returns to normal, and slowly turns black in a spreading patch of necrosis. Silicone sheaths do themselves break down after a number of years, and tear easily under sheering effects.

Whilst the addition of a new sense may, and for some people, such as those with a pacemaker fitted - does prove absolutely invaluable, the risks are considerable, and at this stage in development, are utterly unrecommended.


Haptics: Pressure

Adding a new Sense: Magnetic Fields

Magnetic Implants A Six Month Retrospective

Sensory Experimentation Somatosensory Extension Reflections by Todd M Huffman

A Sixth Sense for a Wired World

Wikipedia: Neodymium

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