A Sixth Sense for a Wired World

magneto.jpg(Wired) What if, seconds before your laptop began stalling, you could feel the hard drive spin up under the load? Or you could tell if an electrical cord was live before you touched it? For the few people who have rare earth magnets implanted in their fingers, these are among the reported effects — a finger that feels electromagnetic fields along with the normal sense of touch. It’s been described as a buzzing sensation, a tingling, an oscillation, movement, pure stimulation and, in the case of body-modification expert Shannon Larrett’s encounter with a too-powerful antitheft gateway at a retail store, “Like sticking your hand in an ultrasonic cleaner.”

Mystech: I think I’ll wait till this is out of beta before acquiring my magnetic super powers.
Body-mod artists Jesse Jarrell and Steve Haworth’s original idea was to implant a magnet to carry metal gadgets. It turns out that doesn’t work: If you try to carry something magnetic on your implant regularly, the pinched skin between the magnets dies and your body rejects the implant. But they came up with a new application when a mutual friend suffered an accident that left a shard of iron in his finger. He worked with audio equipment, and found that he could tell which speakers were magnetized from the sensation that passed through his finger at close range.

That gave Jarrell and Haworth a new direction: Could they obtain that effect deliberately, extending the sense of touch into a sense of magnetism?

Todd Huffman, a graduate student at Arizona State University with a background in neuroscience, joined the project and brainstormed with Jarrell and Haworth about how, and where, to best implant a powerful magnet. He helped come up with the most effective design for an implant, and eventually became the first recipient. “The fingertip was chosen because of the high nerve density, and because the hands are constantly interacting with the environment, increasing the chances of sensing electromagnetism in the world,” Huffman says.

“We chose the ring finger primarily because of its size and relatively low importance in gripping action, so there was plenty of room for the implant and a lower chance of physically damaging the implant,” Huffman explains. Jarrell puts it more bluntly, writing about the procedure in a BMEZine article from March: “‘If you had to lose or seriously damage one of your fingers, which would it be?’ This was our answer.” But nobody’s finger fell off, and Huffman’s results were better than they’d imagined.

According to Huffman, the magnet works by moving very slightly, or with a noticeable oscillation, in response to EM fields. This stimulates the somatosensory receptors in the fingertip, the same nerves that are responsible for perceiving pressure, temperature and pain. Huffman and other recipients found they could locate electric stovetops and motors, and pick out live electrical cables. Appliance cords in the United States give off a 60-Hz field, a sensation with which Huffman has become intimately familiar. “It is a light, rapid buzz,” he says.

I took a trip to Phoenix to have Haworth implant a magnet in me last September. Because body-mod artists are not medical practitioners, ice was the only anesthetic available. My finger was soaked in ice water until it began to hurt. After that, Haworth acted quickly to get as much of the implant done as possible while my hand was still numb from the cold.

The initial cut did hurt, but not unbearably. He sliced open my finger with a standard scalpel, inserted a tool to make a gap for the magnet, and tried to insert the magnet in one nonstop motion. The insertion didn’t work, and he widened the cut and tried again. This time it worked, and he closed the cut with a single suture. The suture was the most painful step — an indicator that the cold “anesthetic” had worn off. The process took less than 10 minutes. My finger was slightly swollen and sported a blue, knotted plastic thread.

When we were done we sat in Haworth’s living room. He brought out a magnet and handed it to me. I brought it near my finger and felt the magnet move for the first time up against the raw inside of my finger. I startled visibly, and Haworth grinned. “Welcome to your new sense,” he said.

At first there was no discerning between the throbbing of the injury and the sense of magnetic fields. Consequently, some early encounters with industrial refrigerators remain mysterious — was the display case at Citizen Cake really giving off that much EM, or was I just having blood rush to my healing finger? Other sensations were unmistakable from the start. I would circle my finger with a strong magnet and feel the one in my finger spin. In time, bits of my laptop became familiar as tingles and buzzes. Every so often I would pass near something and get an unexpected vibration. Live phone pairs on the sides of houses sometimes startled me.

I become slightly phobic of magnetic resonance imaging machines. The superpowerful electromagnets used in medical imaging can make metal fly across a room and stick, often for the hours it takes to power down the magnets. A person with an embedded magnet runs the risk of having their implant ripped out of their body.

People with magnetic implants can’t erase hard drives or credit cards. They don’t set off airport metal detectors or get stuck to refrigerators. The magnets are small, and once encased in skin, all they do is react next to nerves, conveying the presence of sufficiently strong electromagnetic fields. “The magnetic implant is not the most sophisticated or rich sensation, it was just the easiest to implement with our available technology,” says Huffman.

Implant work isn’t ready for prime time. While Huffman loves his implant, he discourages others from getting it. “Most people don’t understand the risks, and implant work isn’t appropriate for most people.” Those risks include infection and breach of the magnet’s silicone sheath. The procedure itself is painful, and the results vary from person to person for unknown and unstudied reasons. Huffman doesn’t see it as a candidate for study.

“The science of sensation is something very much studied by neuroscientists and psychologists, but no one has done what we did,” Huffman says. “The regulation would be onerous, even if someone wanted to.”

Zack Lynch, managing director of neurotechnology consulting firm NeuroInsights, is skeptical of the practice altogether. “I’m not sure if it’s efficacious, intelligent or therapeutic…. I’d worry about long-term problems, including corrosion.”

Several months after having the procedure, some people begin to have problems. Some magnets begin to turn dark under the skin, suggesting the bio-neutral silicone sheath is failing. Exposure to the body starts breaking down the magnets.

Two months after my own magnet was inserted, and long after the cut itself had healed, I experienced one of these problems firsthand. My shielding breached and the implant area became infected. The infection resolved, but the region turned black and my sixth sense evaporated.

My family doctor tried to remove the magnet and failed. Instead, the implant shattered into pieces, and I could no longer pick up other magnets with my finger. After months of ESP, all I had left was a sore digit with a dark spot.

I figured that was the end, but it wasn’t. Four months after I lost all effect, the spot darkened and the magnetism returned. The magnet — being a magnet — had reassembled itself in my finger. While it’s nowhere near as sensitive as it once was, I can once again pick up other magnets.

Haworth plans to try a new generation of magnets with a 70-durometer liquid silicone rubber coating, up from the previous 30 to 40 durometers. That’s going from the hardness of a pencil eraser to the hardness of a car tire. No one knows if that will do the trick, but in the body-modification community, there’s only one way to find out.

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