Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The Limitations Of The Human Senses

Evolution has structured us humans so that we of all species can not only thrive in any environment on our planet, but through our inventiveness we will probably be able to thrive on other planets in the future. In order to do so, we have analysed, measured and constructed our world and accordingly developed tools and instruments with which to master it. However, what if that analysis and measurement was at heart in error? Hamstrung by its own perceptive apparatus, its first assumptions? 

There are plenty of things beyond our sensory apparatus. Wavelengths of light beyond the visible spectrum, which we only make visible through x-raying, ultraviolet and infrared devices. There are also sound frequencies beyond our hearing, such as those dogs can hear but we can't. Scientists deal in sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics which is posited entirely on probability; the latest of these is the hunt for the Higgs Boson which theory has posited must exist long before we have been able to discover it in actuality. At the other end of the scale, from the infinitesimally small to the planetary sized, current theories have the universe existing in around eleven or twelve dimensions in order for the cosmological equations to work. Yet the human brain is constituted to function only in three (height, width, depth). Trying to conceive in four dimensions is difficult enough let alone in eleven! Our brains work brilliantly for the scale we operate in our world. It struggles when the scale is either shrunk or inflated beyond that. The scientific theory may advance our understanding, but our hard-wiring means we are limited in utilising such understanding in coping with our everyday world. 

And that should be the clue into the state of things. Perceiving in three dimensions, within the visible spectrum of light and the wavelengths of audible sounds, works for the human race. It works so well we have mastered our planet and created all sorts of tools to advance our abilities, even to get us into space. BUT, we are equally trapped by this same way of operating that has got us this far. Machines can 'see' the invisible wavelengths for us and indeed we use this to great effect with our medical imaging machines to penetrate the opacity of the human body to locate threats deep within, through Positron Emission Tomography, Computerised Axial Tomography, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Ultrasound, Dynamic Spatial Reconstructors... But these are images and versions of our bodies. Mediated through instruments. They are not directly perceived through our own bodies.

Even if we had X-Ray vision ourselves, so that we could see into other's bodies and solid objects, the way our visual system works is one of cutting corners. There are so many visual stimulations in our everyday environment, that when our eyes are scanning ahead of us they are only 'seeing' a mere 10-15% of what is actually there. The other 85% is stuff it filters as unremarkable, stuff that accords to the brain's templates of what a street scene should look like, or what the view across farming land should represent. That is the brain has pre-constructed what we are seeing and the eye is only scanning for deviations from the normal anticipated view. Because from an evolutionary point of view, ancient man would have been looking for threats in the environment and that's what has been passed down to us. We look for difference, for the unexpected. The everyday and normal is taken as read. The laying down of these templates of 'reality' happen during the child's development as it learns not only how the world works, but how the world 'is'. And so the cycle spins on, as this takes place in a mere three dimensions as the world view is acquired from those teaching the child.

But what if the world really isn't like that? That it only appears thus, because that is the most convenient ways for our brains to perceive it thus, conveyed over millennia of evolution? Take measurement for example, a key concept in our mastery of the planet that has enabled us very successfully to fly to the moon, Jupiter and beyond. Yet the history of measurement, the drive for unimpeachable accuracy, is back to front. We have measurements first, then we try and define and centralise them. One of the earliest measurements used by man, peppering the Old Testament, is the cubit. That is the length of the human forearm. But your forearm is not the same length as my forearm. Could cause trouble in land disputes when trying to mark out boundaries... Or take the humble metre, finally defined in the late eighteenth century as the distance between two marks on a brick made of a metal alloy that was resistant to expansion for temperature variations. What could be more materially defined than a lump of metal? And yet the definition of a metre was further refined, first by a measurement of radioactive decay of an isotope of caesium and more recently a fraction of distance travelled by light because light has a constant velocity. All this time we've merrily been using humble metres and centimetres and millimetres, blissfully unaware that we were probably not actually measuring a true metre. Measure first, then define retrospectively. Just as a side note, the large hadron collider searching for the Higgs Boson essentially works by slamming particles against one another to break them apart into ever smaller ones. While the cubit and other similar measurements such as the pole, perch and the rod which were actual rods pressed against the earth to measure it, well all this is a rather male way of partitioning the world and its matter isn't it?

In my latest novel, "The Dreams In The Key Of G", I have a character who challenges this way of portioning up the world as she declares war on the SI system of units. What would be the upshot if we were no longer able to measure things? It would be a most different world that is for sure. As it is quite possible anyway, since our senses, our processing brains and the output from them including how we measure things, has probably become outmoded by the present level of technology we have attained. When our children start learning things about the world, it becomes solidified in the brains as 'reality'. But in doing so, those neurons close off other possible pathways for the brain to compute and calculate and process its stimulatory output from without. It is quite possible this is a fundamental disservice we do not only to our children, but to the species itself. Worth thinking about perhaps... 

Published by Dead Ink Books 26/07/2018

Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

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