A Six Month Retrospective
In early 2004 BME documented the concept of magnetic implants for the primary purpose of sensory augmentation. You can read that article for an introduction and information on the originators, but the basic concept is that if you implant small magnets under the skin, they will move in response to an electromagnetic field and transfer this as sensation to the surrounding nerves. This in effect allows one to extend “vision” (or touch) into the electromagnetic spectrum, giving you a sixth sense that normal humans do not have — the first real “superhero” modification?
Roughly speaking, magnetic implants break down into the following types:
In relation to the last type, sometimes people ask about whether magnetic implants could be used to hold a watch or eyeglasses or other appliance in place. The short answer is that this is not safe or viable. Even very slight compression (as you’d have between the internal magnet and the external device) can quite quickly cause the tissue to be choked off, die, and induce rejection. As a point of trivia, this is why it can be so dangerous for a child to swallow magnets — if two magnets clamp across the intestinal wall, they crush it and it leads to the development of a very dangerous hole.
That said, the magnets involved are also very small, so attaching devices wouldn’t be easy because they’re just not powerful enough. The good thing about this though is that the magnets have zero effect on credit cards, hard drives, monitors, and so on.
Personally I sought out magnetic implants for sensation — to experience more of the world around me and have a deeper understanding of physical existence — which brings me to Steve Haworth and Jessse Jarrell.
The location of my five (ten?) magnetic pellet implants
Getting them done
The first generation of magnetic implants have been manufactured by Jesse Jarrell (IAM:Mr. Bones, who you also know from projects like Kaos Softwear) and have been primarily installed by Steve Haworth (IAM:steve haworth), easily the most experienced implant artist in the world and one of the only ones that I trust to work on me. After making plans at the 2005 APP meeting in Las Vegas to do the procedure, it was just a matter of being able to synchronize our busy schedules. This ended up happening a month or two later as I was on a road trip from Chicago with my wife Rachel (IAM:MiL0) to our home at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.
After discussing various placement options and configurations, we decided to try two different possibilities so I could help assess which worked best — a “grid” of four single magnets, and a set of five or six magnets stacked up and encased as a single unit. The magnets themselves are rare earth neodymium magnets (so they are quite strong for their size) and are encased in silicone to make them safe to implant (safer anyway). One of the magnets I’d had for some time, and the others were made to order that day by Jesse. The process of autoclaving can weaken the magnets, so they were disinfected using a chemical soak.
While one could in theory implant the magnets using a needle follow-through method similar to a beading, we put them in place by first making a small incision in the tip of the finger and opening a pocket using one of Steve’s smaller dermal elevators. It took a remarkable amount of force to create the pockets. After each pocket was ready to accept the magnetic pellet, Steve (assisted by his partner Cookie; IAM:Miss Cookie) used the back of a taper to push them into the hole — this was quite difficult to do as the magnets themselves are about a third the size of a grain of rice, very smooth and slippery, and of course the hole had blood in it. But, after a little fumbling with them, they each were in place. Small sutures held the wounds closed and I was bandaged up. The five separate incisions and placements were all completed within half an hour, and while having the ends of your fingers messed with is certainly highly unpleasant, it was far easier than I’d anticipated.
The first incision being made and the pocket being created using a small spatula.
ABOVE PHOTOS BY RACHEL LARRATT
They were quite tender for the first week until I cut the sutures out, at which point the pain went away almost immediately. If I touch the area they can be felt and are a little tender if pressure is applied, but not so much that they affect typing or most things I use my hands for. The incision points have left several tiny, almost invisible scars — nothing you’d notice unless you know what to look for. The implants themselves are not visible and do not distort the skin because they’re so tiny. As of this writing I have had the implants for six months.
Effects and Sensation
Jesse had told me that it could be a month before I’d be able to feel anything from the implants due to the surrounding tissue taking time to normalize, so I was surprised when I felt a strange sensation in my fingertips as I used my computer about a week after the procedure. My laptop at the time had dual harddrives and due to using a desktop CPU, an inordinate quantity of fans. Running my fingers through the air over the surface of the computer I could feel a faint vibration coming from each of these microengines, and this vibration changed slightly as the actions of the engines changed the electromagnetic field they were generating. It’s hard to exactly describe what it feels like — it’s definitely not as simple as “I can feel the implant vibrating under my skin”, which is true, but I am completely unaware of the presence of the magnets… It’s more like being able to “touch” the EM field. It’s very tangible, and the best way I can describe it is a combination of vibrating air and a strong sense of static electricity.
Later on I started being able to sense other fields as well. Sometimes I can feel store security gates as I pass through them, although usually I can’t feel them at all unless my hand happens to pass very close. Only once (at an art gallery in Paris) did I experience a very obvious gate — it was turned up so high that it was almost painful at a distance of two or three feet, feeling very much like dipping my fingers into an ultrasonic cleaner; an extremely fast and aggressive vibration! My theory is that the system was malfunctioning, but of course no one else could possibly have been aware of that. Another device that generates a very strong field that I can feel from a distance is my microwave. What’s particularly interesting about that is if I put it on a variable program (ie. defrost and reheat a plate), I can feel the EM field’s vibration strength and frequency change as it passes through different stages in the cooking. I’m not sure if I should worry now that my Mexican-bought microwave is not properly shielded? Finally, I can also feel the vibration of power transformers and sometimes even emissions from power cables themselves. Our environment is sensually rich in ways most people are completely unaware of!
So far with the limited number of people who’ve gotten these implants it seems like different people are more sensitive to different types of fields — personally I am most sensitive to motors. I don’t know if that’s due to subtleties of the placement and orientation of the implant, or if it’s something related to the person themselves. As I mentioned above, I have different magnetic configurations in each hand; four individual magnets in a grid in my left hand and a long single stack of magnets in my right hand. Surprisingly, my experience has been that there is absolutely no difference between the two. To me they feel completely alike. This also makes me believe that the differences that various people have experienced in what they can sense is due to their own innate nervous structure rather than the placement itself.
The biocompatibility of neodymium has not been investigated (so carcinogenic and mutagenic toxicity and so on are complete unknowns) but it is considered a generally toxic irritant and moderately poisonous with documented adverse effects. Really, no reasonable person should be asking for exposure to it by implanting it under their skin! Let me emphasize that this is a fundamentally risky act with unknown consequences.
In order to keep the neodymium from coming in contact with the skin, the magnets have to be coated with something inert. In my case and in the case of all the others that I know of, this is achieved by coating them in a sheath of biocompatible silicone (the same type of medical silicone that is used for everything from chin implants by plastic surgeons to 3D-art by non-medical practitioners). Unfortunately so far this solution has not been entirely ideal.
In my own case, I found myself with a hankering for pickles one afternoon and needed to open a jar of them on which the lid had become stuck. I grasped the jar with my right hand and the lid tightly with my left and turned. As I did so I felt a pain around one of the small magnets in my left hand as shearing forces tore across the magnet and its sheath… I realized immediately that I’d just “peeled” the silicone off of the magnet. There was a slight inflammation and soreness over the next week but it settled down fairly quickly. However, as time has gone by the surrounding tissue has blackened, confirming my theory that the neodymium was exposed to flesh. I haven’t decided yet what to do about this problem. A reasonable person would probably choose to remove at least the compromised implant, but I’m not a reasonable person. So for now it has become another experiment. I worry as well that my stacked magnet is going to break in half if I hit it wrong.
You can see the discoloration from the compromised magnet.
In addition to damage to the silicone sheath from shearing forces and impact damage, the current method of production — hand dipping in liquid silicone — is problematic because it can very easily result in thin patches that are sensitive to the point where they become compromised during the process of insertion. If a mold is eventually made for casting the silicone sheath this problem should be all but eliminated.
Unfortunately I am not the only person to have experienced complications. My friend Monte Vogel (who you know from BME’s QOD and as IAM:MONTE) had to remove an implant from a client’s lip. I should note that while he removed it, the implant was put in place by an inexperienced practitioner in Minnesota using a traditional beading style procedure (ie. piercing with a 12ga needle and following this with the magnet). Somehow during the procedure it seems the silicone sheath (already extremely thin in spots due to hand dipping) was compromised, exposing the neodymium to flesh, and this was compounded by problems with migration.
My own assessment as to the viability of these implants is that figuring out a strong and durable sheath is essential. I would strongly recommend that perhaps even an alternate polymer, or at least a much harder silicone, is required to safely implant neodymium or another potentially toxic substance into the body.
First of all, let me say that I’ve been very happy with my magnetic implants so far, and that I understood the risks (and accepted the unknowns) coming into this. The experience of developing another sense (or at least a pseudo-sense that extends my ability to “touch” in new directions) has been very exciting and illuminating, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. For me the effects have been more of a curiosity and growing experience than something objectively “useful”, but Jesse Jarrell who has a more electrically-oriented life tells me that he’s been finding them genuinely functional:
That said, it is not a procedure that I can recommend in good conscience until the containment problems (the delicacy and potentially short lifespan of the polymer sheath) are solved. I believe that knowing what we know now that implanting the current style of magnetic implant is irresponsible and reckless. However, once this problem is solved, I recommend these implants whole-heartedly. In terms of the configuration that I recommend, I believe that groups of single, small magnets are far safer than and just as effective as the stacked groups.
Jesse concurs and gives us a hint as to his future developments,
I definitely like the idea of an implantable magnetic dust that could sensitize large areas of skin and look forward to seeing where functional body modification goes in general. For me, I probably have to steel myself for some serious discomfort and take scalpel to fingertip and remove the problematic implants. I wonder how blind I will feel having been given this extra vision and then losing it again?
If you’re interested in having magnetic implants done yourself, or are a practitioner looking to buy them, my advice would be that you contact Steve or Jesse directly. Links to their IAM pages are above, and you can also visit stevehaworth.com and jessejarrell.com directly for alternate methods. Good luck everyone, and if you try something, please be sure to let BME readers know how it went for you!