Probing Tongues for Science

I woke up this morning with the regretful head throbbing that usually follows a night of partying. It took me a moment to remember what I had done — had I really . . . ? Yes. I e-mailed a phony faith healer. Dear lord. I checked my in-box but found no response yet; probably for the best, as I’ve no desire to deal with that on a Monday morning.

One thing I do desire to deal with this morning is a news headline reading “Scientists probe use of the tongue.” I’m going to file that one away in the “Headlines, Awesome” folder. The actual article took me by surprise — far from involving tonsil hockey among sexy researchers as I had hoped, it actually deals with the completely insane idea that scientists can hook up humans to be able to sense their surroundings with their tongues, like something out of a weird sci-fi flick.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usRight now, you’re probably picturing test subjects hooked up to various testing equipment as they crawl around a room licking things. And if you’re not, maybe you should be, just for a second because it’s funny.

In fact, the subjects aren’t using taste — it’s more like they’re “seeing,” or at least sensing things in front of them with a pressure on their tongue. From the article:

Michael Zinszer, a veteran Navy diver and director of Florida State University’s Underwater Crime Scene Investigation School, took part in testing using the tongue to transmit an electronic compass and an electronic depth sensor while in a swimming pool.

He likened the feeling on his tongue to Pop Rocks candies.

“You are feeling the outline of this image,” he said. “I was in the pool, they were directing me to a very small object and I was able to locate everything very easily.”

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe bulk of the article deals with the military applications of the research, but it also mentions that the devices allowed blind people to locate objects and catch things thrown at them (presumably with their hands, not their faces). You may think that would be the primary objective of the research, but if so then you must be as innocent and naive as a newborn about to receive that first spank of reality. It seems as though this happens a lot — a new technology that improves our lives invariably begins as a product designed to help us kill other people, or at least prevent our own people from being killed. So it goes.

Here’s more about the lab doing the research.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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