Perception With Compensatory Devices: From Sensory Substitution to Sensorimotor Extension

Cognitive Science 33 (6):1036–1058 (2009)
Sensory substitution devices provide through an unusual sensory modality (the substituting modality, e.g., audition) access to features of the world that are normally accessed through another sensory modality (the substituted modality, e.g., vision). In this article, we address the question of which sensory modality the acquired perception belongs to. We have recourse to the four traditional criteria that have been used to define sensory modalities: sensory organ, stimuli, properties, and qualitative experience (Grice, 1962), to which we have added the criteria of behavioral equivalence (Morgan, 1977), dedication (Keeley, 2002), and sensorimotor equivalence (O’Regan & Noe¨, 2001). We discuss which of them are fulfilled by perception through sensory substitution devices and whether this favors the view that perception belongs to the substituting or to the substituted modality. Though the application of a number of criteria might be taken to point to the conclusion that perception with a sensory substitution device belongs to the substituted modality, we argue that the evidence leads to an alternative view on sensory substitution. According to this view, the experience after sensory substitution is a transformation, extension, or augmentation of our perceptual capacities, rather than being something equivalent or reducible to an already existing sensory modality. We develop this view by comparing sensory substitution devices to other ‘‘mind-enhancing tools’’ such as pen and paper, sketchpads, or calculators. An analysis of sensory substitution in terms of mind-enhancing tools unveils it as a thoroughly transforming perceptual experience and as giving rise to a novel form of perceptual interaction with the environment.
Keywords Sensory substitution  Sensory modalities  Neural plasticity
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DOI 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2009.01040.x
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