From shark fins to seismic senses, members of the biohacking community are changing their brains and bodies to foster a deeper connection with nature
“That’s unusual,” Neil Harbisson remarks as he leans toward me, scanning my face with the WiFi-enabled antenna surgically implanted in his skull. He’s referencing the color of my hair, but I think it’s fair to say that “unusual” applies to everything about the situation: We’re sitting in an outdoor lounge at a music festival in Arkansas, and he’s moving the device over my face to perceive its colors, which are then translated into audible vibrations beamed directly into his head via bone conduction.
Harbisson, who was born and raised in Barcelona, is the world’s first legally recognized cyborg, and he’s made it his life’s work to develop and implement new senses. The antenna, which he’s had since 2014, is capable of picking up measurements of electromagnetic radiation, phone calls, and music, as well as videos or images. He developed it because, having been born with achromatic vision, he couldn’t perceive color like the people around him. “I was obsessed with color,” he says, explaining that his device now not only allows him to perceive the visual spectrum, but also detects infrared and ultraviolet rays, meaning his sense of vision is not shared by any other member of the human species. And it’s only the first of his technological enhancements.
After careful consideration, Harbisson lists off the colors of my face as musical notes, concluding that I don’t have a celebrity lookalike—at least among the many famous faces he’s scanned for his “sound portraits,” one of the many aspects of an artistic practice that sees Harbisson harness his augmented senses to create art that exists primarily within his own perception. Even so, there are ways of translating it to audiences: During the festival we’re attending, he conducts one of his space concerts, in which he uses his WiFi-enabled antenna to connect with a NASA satellite to receive colors from space, amplifying their sound into an experimental composition.
Before becoming a cyborg, Harbisson studied music at the Dartington College of Arts, where he developed an interest in merging with technology. These days, his grand piano now serves double-duty as an operating table for DIY cyborgian surgeries, which he conducts in his studio apartment with the help of anonymous nurses, doctors, and biohackers. “It’s the perfect height for the surgeon,” Harbisson remarks, as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. “We use the piano as a guide, and that itself is like a beautiful piece of performance art.”
These surgeries are not undertaken alone, in the antiseptic silence of a hospital—rather, they’re a communal practice performed in front of an audience of others in the cyborg community. For a movement that many speculate will only emphasize the wealth gap, due to the potential paywalling of technological enhancements, the practice he describes is surprisingly DIY.
Harbisson first began conceiving of his implant as a self-described “broke college student”—and contrary to popular belief, becoming a cyborg wasn’t expensive. The materials are cheap; what’s challenging, Harbisson says, “is knowing what you want, designing those senses, and finding someone willing to open up your body to implant the device.”
This kind of experimental procedure isn’t without risk: Your body might reject the material, or develop an infection. Even if the implant is physically successful, there’s a chance that the sensory changes it produces will be too overwhelming, or otherwise uncomfortable—Harbisson recently had to remove the first iteration of a timekeeping device because it was burning him.
But for Harbisson and a handful of other cyborgs in Barcelona who have successfully made the transition, it’s worth it: “There are many people in this world that might not feel a hundred percent human,” he says. It’s why he and fellow cyborg artist Moon Ribas founded the Transpecies Society, an association that gives voice to people with non-human identities, advocating for the freedom of self-design and supporting them in their efforts to develop new senses and organs. Some of these people are cyborgs, but not all of them: “It’s different from the Cyborg Foundation,” Harbisson explains, stating that the latter organization—which he and Ribas founded in 2010—is more about helping people actualize their transformation.
The Cyborg Foundation is, on a material and design level, dedicated to bringing these non-human identities into being through technology. It’s a practice that Harbisson feels could have broad implications, beyond the purpose of expressing individual identity. Thus far, we’ve been using technology to alter our environment to fit our needs—but Harbisson believes that if we start designing ourselves, these new senses could have a widespread positive impact on things like climate change. “Having night vision is the most obvious example, because we won’t have to use energy to create artificial lighting,” he says. “Or, we can start to regulate our temperature, so we don’t need air conditioning.” The possibilities, in Harbisson’s view, are endless.
“Cyborg art is different from other art movements, because there’s no separation between the work of art, the space where the work of art is happening, and the audience. It’s all happening in my head.”
But with these changes come new risks to bodily autonomy. “For many years, there were chosen people allowed to send messages directly into my head,” he says, describing a close-knit community of friends who could, at will, beam him a picture of a sunset, or something funny they saw at the grocery store. That was before his implant was hacked by a stranger, who sent images directly into his skull without permission. It prompted Harbisson to institute tighter security measures: “Blockchain can be used to create better protection for our bodies,” he says. Now, the connection to his device is linked to an NFT, accessible only to its owner, Pol Lombarte—a man who, in return, has given Harbisson the power to control his heart rate by sending vibrations to his body. Now, he can alter his heart rate from afar at any point in the day, while ‘feeling’ and ‘hearing’ the colors Lombarte sends his way. (Luckily, their relationship is low-conflict.)
Lombarte got his idea from a poetry book published by his great-grandfather some 40 years ago, titled Heartbeats. “In the book, he explains that the verses he wrote served to externalize the heartbeats of his feelings. This is what inspired me to literally externalize my heartbeats through technology, instead of ink and paper,” he says, explaining that he then created a small prototype using electrodes to capture an ECG of his heartbeats to send them via WiFi. “What I have felt the most in this whole process is curiosity, more than fear or worry,” he says. Lombarte’s life hasn’t changed much on a material level since becoming a cyborg, though he owes some of that to the security provided by the blockchain, which ensures the signal to control his heart cannot be hacked. “My relationship with people hasn’t changed at all,” he muses. “It’s more the relationship with myself that has changed, and the work that I now create.”
Similarly, Harbisson’s aim is not to hack his body, but to hack his mind: creating new, first-person experiences of phenomena no one else has perceived. “Cyborg art is different from other art movements, because there’s no separation between the work of art, the space where the work of art is happening, and the audience,” he says. “It’s all happening in my head.”
His primary interest is in creating new senses: unlocking modes of perception previously inaccessible to him, by introducing technology as an interlocutor between his brain and the natural world. When I ask if he’s experimented with drugs, Harbisson frames cybernetics as the safer option: “Using cybernetics, you can design very specifically how you want to alter your senses. You can change it if you don’t like it, or just stop, because it’s a very direct input. Usually, people who take drugs don’t design the drugs themselves, and they stay in your body long after the sensory effects are gone.”
“I think of us as explorers of perception. We know that our planet is like this because we perceive it like this as humans, but there are actually so many layers we cannot see or perceive.”
That’s not to say that Harbisson hasn’t experienced classic coming-of-age experimentation; in fact, Harbisson and Ribas, with whom he grew up, both tried perception-expanding substances before turning to cybernetics. “Since we were maybe eight years old, Neil and I were always talking about perception,” recalls Ribas. Once, they even trekked around Amsterdam in search of a strain of magic mushrooms that could help Neil to perceive color in new ways—but of course, no such thing exists.
Ironically, Ribas and Harbisson identified as hippies growing up. “We weren’t just disconnected—we were actively against technology,” she says with a laugh, recalling the time they once taped a piece of paper over her little brother’s computer, with the scribbled inscription, “There’s life outside the screen.” As teenagers, they were involved in a campaign to prevent the destruction of ancient trees in their hometown; in an act of protest, Harbisson climbed one and lived there for three days, refusing to come down until the City Hall announced the trees would not be cut.
The relationship between technology and nature is, according to Ribas, often misunderstood. “We get to experience reality in a different way because we use technology,” she says, explaining that if you allow it to, cybernetic enhancement can present opportunities to connect more deeply with the natural world. “If you use technology to have a deeper relationship with living things—to understand them better—then your point of view changes. I think of us as explorers of perception. We know that our planet is like this because we perceive it like this as human, but there are actually so many layers we cannot see or perceive.”
Inspired by her work as a choreographer and dancer, Ribas has utilized cybernetic enhancement to better understand the concept of movement. For seven years, the seismic sensors implanted in her feet allowed her to quite literally feel the movements of the earth, which she used to inspire performances like her series Waiting for Earthquakes. After seven years, Ribas decided to remove the device, and found that, for months afterward, she still experienced the sensation: a cyborgian phantom limb.
For Ribas, removing the enhancement was more intimidating than having it put in—but she was ready for a change. “Taking it out, at that point, actually felt more radical. I was afraid to lose that sense, and everything I built,” she muses. I was thinking, Who will I be without it? Am I still a cyborg?
Inherent to the creation of new senses is the fact that you’re experiencing something no one around you is able to perceive—so next, Ribas set out to create a new experience she could share with others, admitting that cyborg art can get a bit lonely. When she got pregnant, Ribas and her husband saw it as an opportunity to share an experience that few men have access to. They collaborated to create a system which—using an ultrasound belt and bone-conducted headphones—allowed him to call their baby in-utero, listening to its movements and heartbeat as it grew.
Ribas’s enhancements have always allowed her to fly under the radar—but for others, the same enhancements that serve as a source of deeper connection with the natural world in their community can present logistical inconveniences in day-to-day life. “The main challenges are found at street level, if it is a visible body part that attracts attention,” says Lombarte, speaking of the challenges facing cyborgs who stand out in a crowd. Take, for instance, 24-year-old Manel Munoz, known artistically as Manel De Aguas, who had two large silicone shark fins implanted in his skull in 2020. The fins are connected to a microchip, allowing him to “hear” atmospheric pressure, humidity, and changes in temperature. “To this day, man lives in a sort of anthropocentric bubble, seeing nature in a vertical hierarchical ladder in which man is above other species,” he said, after getting the implant. “For me, this project means breaking with that.”
For some, the focus of self-augmentation is about expressing nonhuman identity—for others, it is about experiencing new senses, or understanding the world in new ways. “We are a species that, for many years, has been designing and changing the planet to live better. I think that is wrong—we should be designing and changing ourselves,” Harbisson says. “In merging with technology, our aim is to reveal elements of nature that already exist around—things that our bodies cannot sense, but which connect us to nature, and also help us reconnect to other species.”
“We are a species that, for many years, has been designing and changing the planet to live better. I think that is wrong—we should be designing and changing ourselves.”
For example, Harbisson has found that—since gaining the ability to see in infrared—he has become sensitive to the behavior of cats. They can’t perceive infrared visually, but instead detect it as heat—part of the reason for their uncanny ability to find a warm spot wherever they are. Similarly, when a bee buzzes toward a flower, Harbisson can see the ultraviolet light guiding it toward the pollen. Ribas relates more with elephants, which communicate using infrasounds, which allow them to keep in touch over distances as large as 10 kilometers.
According to Harbisson, his cybernetic enhancement fosters a feeling of connection that brings him into harmony with everything around him—a far cry from stereotypes that technology will lead to a reduced appreciation of the natural world. “Technology is just the medium, it’s not the aim,” he says. “When you merge with technology, it’s a slow process, because your brain needs to create the intelligence to interpret the new signals—it’s not given to you, like artificial intelligence.” This is part of why, after removing her seismic sensors to try something new, Ribas could still feel the earth’s vibrations: Her brain had effectively created, and adjusted to, a new form of sensory input, interpreting it as part of her body.
Though Harbisson’s main focus lies in altering his mind, he also feels a connection with people who modify their bodies in visible ways, empathizing with the social challenges this creates. Sometimes, he gets confronted in public, by people who liken his enhancement to “something straight out of Black Mirror,” or think it’s a reading device. And as if airport security wasn’t already bad enough, you could imagine the logistical hassle they present to Harbisson, who had to petition for his antenna to be recognized as an organ, not a device, after his passport renewal was rejected in 2004.
In daily life, Harbisson says he often forgets about his enhancement—but for those who aren’t familiar with his work, the antenna sprouting from his skull frequently produces reactions of shock and disbelief. During his keynote talk on cybernetic enhancement, I witnessed casual passersby at the Arkansas music festival standing with mouths agape, while he explained the interior mechanics involved. A stranger elbowed me, asking, “Is this actually happening? Is this real?”
The answer, like anything we perceive through our senses, depends on who you ask.