Do you have a fear of missing out? FOMO, it’s called these days, at least that’s what my kids tell me.
You can only be in one place at a time, but even in that one place do you get the whole story? Is what you see, hear, taste, feel and smell on a daily basis – all of it fading with age, dammit – enough to tell you the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about your reality?
Says David Eagleman, neurologist, “As humans, we can perceive less than a ten-trillionth of all light waves. Our experience of reality is constrained by our biology.” In his powerful TED Talk, entitled “Can we create new senses for humans?”, Eagleman explains that we’re built of small stuff, we’ve been embedded into a large cosmos and our brains haven’t evolved to understand things at this scale. With this thin-slice of perception, we do miss a lot of the action.
Our eyes perceive light at wavelengths between 390-700 nanometers, a narrow range that many species see outside of. Says Wikipedia, “Bees and many other insects can detect ultraviolet light, which helps them find nectar in flowers.” Birds see into ultraviolet light as well, some sporting sex-dependent plumage visible only in the ultraviolet range.
While some species enjoy a visual advantage over us, many don’t. I’ve always liked Deepak Chopra’s observation about reality in The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire: “Scientists know it takes a snail about three seconds to register light. So imagine that a snail was watching me, and that I left the room, robbed a bank, and came back in three seconds. As far as the snail was concerned, I never left the room. I could take her to court and she would provide a great alibi.”
Common hearing range for humans is between 20 Hz and 20 kHz, unless you’ve lead a glamorous rock and roll life, as my fiancé B has, hosting bands regularly, like Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam and the White Stripes, in which case you can’t hear your fiancé yelling at the top of her lungs from the next room. Not many species can hear at ranges lower than humans, but many go higher, like cats, dolphins and the little brown bat.
I didn’t know this, but taste is perhaps the weakest of our senses. In his blog about the 10 Limits to Human Perception, Robbie Gonzalez tells the story of researcher Frederic Brochet inviting 57 wine experts to give opinions on two glasses of wine – one white, one red. BUT the red was actually the very same white, the color altered with red food coloring. The experts described the fake red with words like “jamminess” and “crushed red fruit”. Not one detected that it was white.
The sensation of touch is a more difficult one to measure, but it’s been determined that we’re more sensitive in areas of our bodies in which there are more nerve receptors, like our faces and fingers. The experience of pleasure and pain is a highly personal one.
As for our feeble noses? Well, scientists estimate a dog’s sense of smell overpowers ours by at least 10,000 times, perhaps as much as 100,000 times. Blogger Peter Tyson draws from the book Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, to put this into terms we can understand. “While we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.”
So Eagleman, the neuroscientist looking to expand our experience of life, tells us that this disparity of the senses felt by various organisms is called “umwelt”, pronounced oomvelt. Each animal has its own window on reality, he says, and we accept this, but should we?
You see, the interesting thing about the brain is that the senses don’t originate from it. I find it kind of creepy to think about, but the brain is locked in a dark and silent vault within your skull. Electrochemical signals travel along data cables, creating patterns that your inner cosmos turns into a story about your reality. The brain doesn’t give a crap about where the data comes from, it just figures out what to do with it.
It’s funny, but Eagleman uses Mr. Potato Head as a great analogy, because of the “plug and play” way the brain works. Change the peripheral and get a different experience.
Eagleman and his researchers have invented various wearable vests to test their various theories on, and the one I understand enough to explain is one they created for deaf people. He shows a video of a deaf man wearing the vest, while a researcher says a word, then the man writes the word on a board. The deaf man doesn’t consciously understand what he is feeling, but it is believed that after three months of wearing the vest he will have the direct perceptional experience of hearing.
Eagleman goes so far as to suggest that perhaps we can add another sense to the human repertoire.
While it’s exciting to contemplate this research and where it will lead, I just feel good acknowledging our sensory limitations and how that impacts the way we experience our world. Knowing there is so much more going on out there comforts me. When I think about people I come into contact with, and the sensory input they’ve endured – as limited as it may be – and also how they’ve interpreted it, I’m amazed when we can communicate and understand one another. (Of course, with B and me, it’s important that we’re in the same room.)
And how humbling is it to share the planet with other creatures enjoying their own unique worldview? I just read a Maclean’s Magazine book review of Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey. “. . . thanks to advances in 3D imaging,” it says, “neuroscientists now know dolphin brains have three times the neurons responsible for high-level functions like judgment, intuition and self-awareness that ours do, and that the unique architecture of their brains allows them not only to process information faster, but to communicate and experience emotion in ways we don’t yet fully understand.”