Funding Announcement: Sensory Engineering (SENSOR) Project

Published: 4 December 2023

A joint AHRC-DFG grant of approximately three quarters of a million pounds!

Funding Announcement: Sensory Engineering (SENSOR) Project

Researchers at the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, University of Glasgow, Dr Derek Brown, Prof Jack Lyons and Prof Fiona Macpherson, in collaboration with Prof Sascha Benjamin Fink, currently at the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, have won a joint AHRC-DFG grant of approximately three quarters of a million pounds, for a project on Sensory Engineering (SENSOR) for three years, starting January 2024. 

AHRC Announcement

Project Description

A range of new interventions on our sensory experiences will soon become commonplace in our society. Virtual reality promises to provide immersive experiences of the physical world around us and of virtual digital worlds. Augmented reality can dramatically change how our environment appears to us, seamlessly inserting virtual objects and features into it. Sensory prosthetics will potentially give us new senses we have not had before. Stroboscopic light and psychedelic substances can induce sensory hallucinations, with the promise of therapeutic benefit. These are all cases of “sensory engineering”. In this project, we will study these interventions to develop a better philosophical understanding of the sensory experiences these new interventions provide, and also of ordinary sensory experiences. We aim to fully understand the wide range of perceptual and epistemic benefits that these technologies may offer and the related dangers that they may pose. Such dangers include increasing our biases, threatening our autonomy, compromising our capacity to act morally, and reducing our ability to know about the world by perceiving it.

Our project will achieve this goal by examining three foundational issues in the philosophy of perception: the nature of (1) illusion and hallucination, (2) direct and indirect perception, and (3) perceptual knowledge. It is essential to revisit these issues because the new sensory technologies offer up novel cases that force us to fundamentally reconsider them. As a result, we will have a better understanding of the old foundational issues but also of the new emerging sensory technologies and the possibilities that they afford us. We will consider numerous case studies of sensory engineering, such as those mentioned above. The project team collectively, but not individually, has expertise covering all cases. It is thus imperative that the team work collaboratively throughout the project, pooling and combining their expertise. 

We developed our notion of sensory engineering by generalising from a more specific notion, that of “dream engineering” (Carr et al. 2020). When people dream, they have sensory experiences, but they are not typically perceiving the world—they are hallucinating. Researchers have found that they can influence the content of dreams by introducing perceptual elements into them. For example, they apply pressure to the limbs of sleeping people, they play sounds into their ears, and introduce smells into their nostrils. These interventions produce dreams with both hallucinatory and perceptual elements. Expanding beyond the case of dreams, in our project, will we study the more general phenomenon of sensory engineering. We define this as consisting of any case in which sensory experiences are altered or guided, with the intention of introducing new perceptual, illusory or hallucinatory elements into them.

There is, in fact, a long history of techniques to manipulate our sensory experiences. From microscopes to telescopes, from record players to televisions, and from spectacles to braille, perceptual technologies—which enable us to perceive what we otherwise could not—have been around for hundreds of years. These forms of sensory engineering have, in one sense, become familiar and mundane, and yet, in another, still fill us with awe and continue to expand our understanding of the world around us, such as when we see images of deep space from the James-Webb telescope. But we are about to see our everyday lives changed by an explosion of radical new interventions into our sensory experiences. Cases range from sensory experiences that involve more perceptual elements to cases that involve more hallucinatory elements. The need for philosophical analysis and understanding of these cases—and thereby assessment of their potential uses, benefits and harms—is pressing.


First published: 4 December 2023