Consider this...

"Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine." - Rabindranath Tagore

Selective perception

First, what to do we see and why do we see only that? Let’s start with sight.

Men (to repeat, including women…) have eyes which contain light captors, or detectors (rods and cones, which are distributed differently on the retina of the eye). There are three points here:


  1. These minuscule organs can “see” (detect) electromagnetic waves (aka light) only of certain wavelengths, from about 380 to 750 nm (1 nanometer = 10**-9 meter). We perceive 400nm light as violet in our minds/brains (Why we do so is another subject…) and 700 nm light as red. Below (meaning, at shorter wavelengths) violet is ultra-violet, which burns our skin and gives us cancers, and above red is infra-red, which is used by the military in order to kill people in the dark. So we can only see a small range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  2. In addition, we can only make out light of certain intensities. We cannot see very faint objects and when we do they are gray, not colored.
  3. Also, our brightness detection is logarithmic, so that as light gets brighter and brighter, we see the increase in brightness less and less, enabling us to get around in a fairly wide range of brightness situations. (Digital-camera captors are not logarithmic and this must be corrected by the software in the camera.)

Figaro, our cat, can see much dimmer light than we can. Some animals probably distinguish more colors than we do.

As for sound, which is due to vibrating particles and therefore exists only in matter (no sound in space), the detectors we call ears can only hear from about 20 to 20,000 Herz (vibrations per second) at our best (at which we older folks no longer are). Our dog, Mackie, even at his age of 12 years, can hear much higher frequencies than we can (although the poor dog is mostly blind). And bats do far better than Mackie, but we don’t have a pet bat.

Taste and smell are somewhat similar, since they distinguish the chemical composition of the matter which enters in contact with their detectors, the taste buds on our tongue or the whatever-it-is-we-smell-with in our nose. Again, we can taste and smell some things but not others. We can taste cheese, pepperoni and tomato sauce, but not distilled water; we can smell perfume, garlic and crap, but not glass. It is well known that predatory beasts like lions have a much more highly developed sense of smell.

Touch is due mostly to the contact of our principal touch organs, the fingers. Using touch, we can detect a grain of sand or a basketball, but touch cannot really tell us what the Empire State Building is like and not at all what a single atom is like. So our touch is limited too. Think of the story of the four blind men who were allowed to touch different parts of an elephant (tail, belly, leg, trunk) and then came up with completetly differing descriptios of the beast.

So the result of all this is that we have only a limited perception of “what’s out there”. We see less well than Figaro, hear less well than Mackie and smell less well than a lion. (Anybody have a pet bat?)

So why these particular limitations? To find out more, go on to part 3, the end.