Perceiving Some, But Not All

Perceiving Some, But Not All

I don’t often consider what the ordinary world looks like to those with colorblindness. I take for granted the brilliant array of colors that pass through my retinas on a daily basis. The blue, pink, orange sticky notes on my desk. The green and yellow leaves hanging from the trees out the window. My seeing of these colors just happens and I hardly pay attention to it.

A while back I discovered that there was a new line of glasses called Enchroma glasses than allow people with certain types of colorblindness see the world in the same array of colors that most of us see it in. The first time I saw a video of someone trying on Enchroma glasses I replayed the video over and over again. Rather than describe that video here, I’ll let you watch it for yourself.

There are lots of videos out there now but, perhaps since this is the first one I saw, it became really special to me. I can’t imagine what it must be like to suddenly have an experience where you realize there is far more to reality than you ever knew. Sure, others might have tried to explain what some of the unseen colors look like, but without seeing the full depth of those colors for oneself it is impossible to even imagine them.

The real reason I love these videos goes beyond the touching sentimentality that they provide. I love them because they remind me that although I think I see the world as it is, I am only ever seeing ultimately reality as filtered by my bodily senses. These videos reminder me that there is so much more mystery to the world that we live in.

Butterflies, for example, have two extra cones to perceive pigments. This gives them five total cones compared to the three that humans have. Can you imagine how many additional colors the perception of these additional pigments could create? And then there is the mantis shrimp that has an incredible 16 cones! They can even see into the infrared and ultraviolet range on the electromagnetic spectrum. It is easy to feel that we see the world exactly how it is, but we are actually perceiving a significantly compressed version of what actually is.

Then there is sound. Humans can only hear frequencies between 20-23,000 hertz. As we all probably know quite well, dogs have a much more refined ability to hear things. With a hearing range up to 45,000 hertz they can hear high-pitched frequencies that simply do not register to our human auditory senses. However, dogs hearing range isn’t all that wide compared to other animals. Elephants can hear lower frequencies between 14-16 hertz, beneath what most humans can hear, and the beluga whale can hear into the 100,000 hertz range well beyond what registers to the human ear.

Then, there are other categories entirely like electroreception which is the ability to sense electrical fields. Sharks and dolphins use this to sense electrical pulses from other animals. Bees even use this to detect which flowers have been pollinated and which ones are still available since a small electrical field is left on a flower after another bee has landed on it.

There are many others of course, but what a strange feeling it is to realize that I only perceive a fraction of ultimate reality. What else exists that I simply have no perception of or any way to know about it? It suddenly seems naive to think that my or anyone else’s arguments or logical explanations do anything but take a small bite out of all that actually is.

Of course we don’t give up on our understanding of the world through our perceptions and logical minds, but I think we do it with constant mindfulness of the great backdrop of infinitely knowable mystery that surrounds us all.

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