Contacting Neil Harbisson was the first completely impulsive thing we did; we've just seen a trailer for a documentary about him and had so much questions. And while our music editor Marko had no problem understanding the basics of how Harbissons cyborg extension worked, I had tons of questions for him. We wrote an article about him and Cyborg Foundation, and have sent an interview inquiry not really thinking much would come out of it. But his fast and helpful team got it in the motion in no time and Neil got back to us. Here it is; an interview with a man who listens to colors.
DTS: In the documentary, an interesting fact was mentioned: people learn about colors; we learn that the sky is blue... but if one can't see colors how does one imagine them? How does one classify blue or yellow in their mind?
N.H.: When I was a child, I tried lots of ways to understand colors. I related them to people: when someone talked about blue, I thought about a friend of mine who was very brainy. Pink was a very feminine girl, green a hippie kind of girl; yellow was a boy from London, very childlike and eccentric. When I was growing up I never liked using colors to paint because I felt completely distant to them. Colors created a mysterious reaction to people that I didn’t quite understand. I started to think of color as energy that I can’t see because it moves too quickly. I’ve imagined colors as fast moving energies.
DTS: I've read all the possible interviews in which you described seeing/hearing color. However I still wonder, as someone who has never been in that position, how it actually works? When you interact with people, browse the web... does it ever feel like an information overload?
N.H.: Back in 2004, it took me about five weeks to get used to the new input of information. It was five weeks of 24/7 and I had to deal with headaches, back pain (since I had to carry a 5kg computer with me all the time) and also, my ears blocked. But I don't really think about this as an information overload considering that people who see color receive just as much information as I do but you are way too used to it to even realize you're processing it. Same thing happened with me when I felt that the software and my brain had united and it just became like an extra sense.
DTS: Or, to be more precise; just like sounds, some colors don't match; they don't go well together. When that happens with tones it's even more noticeable 'cause they tend to make you feel unease and tense... Does the sound enable you to feel that disharmony? Or even harmony when two colors and tones go rather well together? I assume that has a lot to do with what you said; you now dress in the way that it sounds good, right?
N.H.: Harmony is a very subjective concept if you think about it. For instance, the way I understand harmony has changed because now I get to listen to a range of 360 micro-tones. This means that very colorful places, just as supermarkets, become a very interesting place for me because there's a wide variety of tones and therefore, bigger wealth of music. And perhaps, if you'd listen to it, you'd think it's too chaotic and wouldn't say it sounds harmonic at all. I also stopped listening to popular music, I couldn't find it appealing as it only uses 12 notes and it got a bit too simple.
DTS: Most of us are unaware of everything the eye itself perceives, the brain tends to discard the possible extras; how do you that? Do the sounds just become background „noises“? Do you ever feel like you've unconsciously turned some of them off?
N.H.: I really don't need to think about it anymore, they just feel like part of my mind so I guess, yes, they have become background noises, just the same as you see color and don't really think about this being red or yellow. You would differentiate seeing color from looking at color; I would differentiate hearing color from listening to color.
DTS: Could you maybe describe the difference of the feeling while watching TV and going to the club?
N.H.: Watching TV sounds very microtonal cause there are lots of different colors and therefore, lots of information and notes. When going to a club you can usually listen to repetitive pure notes all the time (coming from the colored lights) in a very rhythmic way.
DTS: You described it in some conversations as an extra sense since in the end you don't actually see colors but tend to experience them differently. How much of that is the individual experience and how much is it interference of the device and its settings?
N.H.: I have developed a new sense because I can hear color through bone conduction which I couldn't do before. Hearing through bone conduction is not such a strange thing though, since we find animals that already do it, like dolphins. How this has affected me personally is the way I understand color and sound, it’s the union between the software and my brain that allows me to perceive color because color is not only what I hear but the union between what I hear and what I see. Color has three properties: hue, saturation and light. The chip allows me to perceive hue and saturation, and my eyes allow me to perceive light.
DTS: I presume that, in the beginning it was conscious and more complicated to cope with...Did you suffer from any negative side effects?
N.H.: Yes, just like I said earlier, it was a difficult process to adapt to all the brand new information and I suffered from very bad headaches. I also had to carry a computer with me which caused me back pain and my ears blocked. But once my brain got used to it all these side effects went away and now it just feels normal.
DTS: Thanks to one of the side effects you started creating paintings....
N.H.: True, it worked in the opposite way as well so I began to perceive sound as color. Telephone lines became green; Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” song seemed red and pink. So I started to paint using the sounds around me. I’ve made pictures of pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven and Mozart among others. Now, we are developing a bag which you will be able to customize with your favorite song (using the same pattern I do with the artworks).
DTS: I understand you had a surgery that had a part of device put in your bone...
N.H.: It hasn't happened yet but, yes, that is the plan. Last year, the operation was approved by a bio-ethical committee and now I’ve managed to fund the operation. We are currently designing the new antenna that will be integrated in my skull. This will allow me to remove the pressure from the bone and I'll get to perceive better the difference between audio sounds and visual sounds.
DTS: But, it is, when you think of it, a bit like having a bypass done...people are used to that idea, but still hesitate thinking science might interfere with senses we all take for granted. Do you think that, in time, we would all wish to become more, explore our possibilities? Should it happen naturally or should we speed up the evolution; give it a little push?
N.H.: I think that there should be as many cyborgs as possible and that we should explore our possibilities. We are not trying to make sci-fi movie scenes come to life or anything like that. We don't think about cyborgs as robots but more as animals. The senses we try to extend and the ideas we are defending are all based in skills that many animals have already mastered, such as hearing through bone conduction or detecting ultraviolet, perceiving where the north is and so on. So, yes, why not give it a little push, extend our human perceptions, and see where this takes us!
Special thanks to Neil Harbisson and Mariana Viada for making this interview possible. Those interested more in Cyborg Foundation can visit the official page for more information.