MANILA, JULY 7, 2009 (STAR)  DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - The dentures of George Washington were something to behold in his time. It was a combination of human and hippopotamus teeth as well as ivory from elephant set in gold plates and gold springs. That is what George Washington had to endure in his time when he needed a new set of teeth. It must have been very uncomfortable but he must have adjusted to it in his own way.

All of history, humans have made use of things to perform tasks they could not otherwise do because of bodily defects or limitations. And there are very few things as pressing and urgent as the need for a tool to help you chew and converse. The book where that bit of “teeth” about the history of technology comes from is from Our Own Devices, How Technology Remakes Humanity by Edward Tenner. I had to go back to it when I read about the most recent proof that indeed, we humans re-draw the map of our bodies in our brains when we use tools. The study is entitled “Tool-use induces morphological updating of the body schema” and is published in the journal Current Biology on June 22. The researchers were Lucilla Cardinali, Francesca Frassinetti, Claudio Brozzoli, Christian Urquizar, Alice Roy and, Alessandro Farnè.

This “map” is what experts call the “body schema.” It is a picture of your body in your head which gives you the extent of your reach to the world. This means that Washington’s set of dentures, strange though as it may seem to us now, was incorporated by Washington in his brain as part of his body. The tool you use becomes a part of who you are.

What the scientists did in the experiment is to give an arm-grabbing tool to their subjects and see how they would behave after they have used the tool. It turned out that after using the arm-grabbing tool, the subjects have modified their bodily movements — they did not move as quickly to reach for the tool before they made use of the arm-grabber and they all took longer to do the task. They also behaved as though their elbows and the middle fingertip of their arm were farther apart than they really are. Imagine men who are obsessed with power tools and what their “body schema” of themselves look like. It would probably shame Optimus Prime. They may even need a permit to carry that mental picture of themselves.

I liked the article because it raises so many other questions about the effect of technologies on our bodily responses, especially in this digital age. Now, we can extend not only our arms to reach things but slices of ourselves in “personas” whether in Facebook or in long-running games where there are avatars that represent you. The reach of not just your arm, but your whole persona has been enabled by digital tools. This makes me ask whether these “tools” would have the same effect on “body schema” modifications as the arm grabber in the experiment. As an avatar where another you roams in a world all its own, what effect could that have on your “original” persona as far as your own behavior is concerned in the natural world?

I saw some sneak previews of Project Natal of Microsoft’s Xbox and that is one area where researchers studying how we perceive our bodies with tools, should venture. Project Natal was awesome in that the world where you sit on your sofa and the world where you reach out to another world is so fluid that you may want to double-check on what was in your last cup of coffee. The developers of games and cyber environments are extremely keen and clever in that they have observed that humans indeed respond to cyberspace, making smooth adjustments in their movements. But what happens after the “game,” are our responses in corresponding situations in the “tangible” environment also changed by how we behaved in cyberspace”?

I think that is the million-dollar question in our age. We want to know what the effect of having to live in the digital and natural world all at once makes us? We already know that physical tools change the way we perceive our own bodies even when the tool is no longer there. Are digital tools the same way? I suspect so but I do not know as to what extent. In my own case, I have caught myself doing some “digital” motions in the natural world. I find myself sometimes looking for the delete button after I have written something by hand on paper. But I do not play video games so I cannot offer my own stories.

I am aware that our questions on the implications of this finding are far beyond looking for a “delete” button on a yellow paper with inked doodles. We want to know what effect cyberspace, with its environments and situations limited only by imagination, has on the way we behave in the natural world. That is what I think research in neuroscience and psychology should investigate. I think we should also have pictures of what the brain sees when it uses tools to further inform this observed behavior. Over a month ago, there was an experiment where men were asked to look at pictures of attractive women and you know what part of the men’s brains lit up? That part that lights up when they use power tools. The article even had a picture of a power drill in the same page. Well, that is what happens when you are a one-tooled being.

So it seems like you define yourself, in a sense, according to the tools that you use. And in this age of digital tools, that may lend some truth to “you click, therefore you are.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved