The Perceptual Experience in Brain-Machine Interface Technology
Perceptual experience is a neglected question in the rapidly expanding field of brainmachine interface technology. This project proceeds from the assumption that the theory and methods of social studies of science and the neurosciences can inform one another with regard to their mutual interest in the processes of embodiment. Sensory prostheses like the retinal prosthesis and cochlear implant offer a unique opportunity to test this claim by allowing us to trace how configurations in the institutional relationships involved in the production and implementation of the devices (such as academic-industrial-clinical partnerships) manifest in individual, perceptual experience. What do individuals with these devices see and hear when they are turned on for the first time, and how does that change over time? What does it mean for these devices to work? Several of these sensory prosthesis devices are being developed in partnerships between French and American institutions, with both French and American participants. In a parallel collaborative venture, American anthropology student Erickson-Davis and French anthropology student Helma Korzybska will conduct a two-way, cross-cultural ethnography of French-American research groups currently conducting clinical trials for the cochlear implant and retinal prosthesis. Using phenomenological and experimental methods that include computational modeling, psychophysics and behavioral tasks, they will probe the perceptual experience of individuals implanted with these devices, and then relate these data with those gathered ethnographically. The product will be a novel form of sensory ethnography that will inform our knowledge of the ways in which commercial, regulatory, and clinical environments affect device and trial design, and in turn, individual participant experience.