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Nidhi Subbaraman

A View from Nidhi Subbaraman

Blindfolded Humans Use Artificial Whiskers to Navigate Like a Rat

Our furry friends have relied on whiskers as a sensory tool for eons. How quickly could we learn to do the same?

  • November 7, 2012

Rats, which are naturally near sighted, rely on the twitching whiskers on their face to find their way around. In a series of experiments that will no doubt inspire countless party tricks, researchers in Israel set out to find out just quickly we humans could learn to use a pair of force-sensitive pair of “whiskers” attached to ends of our fingers.

They blindfolded their subjects and sat them within arms-reach of two poles. Their task: To tell which pole was closer using only the 30 centimeter-long flexible plastic rod taped to their index finger.

The two poles, one on either side of each volunteer, were within smacking distance of their arms. The group quickly figured out that by moving their arms back and forth, they could tell which pole was the closer—based on how much sooner they slapped it with their new appendage. Only when the poles were apart a mere 8 centimeters did their whisking strategy fail.

And over time they got better. When tested a second day, they could tell apart poles that were just three centimeters apart, and in some cases, just one centimeter apart.

The test scores of this volunteer group were encouraging to the researchers, who published their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience. They say that a version of force-sensitive whiskers could one day be designed as navigation tools to aid the blind. In the meanwhile, they plan to learn more about the overlap in the way people process visual and sensory cues. 

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