Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Limits of Perception

It is a warm autumn afternoon. I am sitting on a grassy hillside that slopes to the west, watching, on the distant horizon, the Sun begin to settle toward the ocean. There is a faint breeze, barely palpable against my cheek, but I can hear the trees behind me rustle from time to time. And there is the twitter of songbirds somewhere in the trees; and the whirr and buzz of occasional insects in the grass nearby. High above I see a red-tailed hawk circling slowly. I almost think there is the faint smell of flowers on the breeze, but perhaps it is only the warm fullness of the air, the caress of sunshine, the joy and peace of the moment.

It all fills up my senses. Surely there can be no more. And yet that hawk has vision five times more acute than mine; from high overhead it watches for the telltale quivers of a blade of grass that show it a mouse is passing--quivers I could not see if they were only ten feet away. Some of those insects have vision that extends far beyond mine in a different way, into the ultraviolet so that spider webs, pale and silky, draped among the tall grasses, light up like holiday parade banners to them. Nor do I feel the higher frequencies from the Sun that caress into life the tanning pigments of my skin or that claw at my skin's elastic tissue and sneak in their pre-cancerous attacks on my DNA. I cannot see that near the horizon the light from the Sun is polarized, although many birds and aquatic creatures navigate hundreds and thousands of miles using that polarization as a guiding beacon.

I do not hear some of the songbirds' artistry that trills and twitters too quickly for my ear to resolve it, or that soars into octaves that are too high in pitch for my ears to hear. I am not aware of the many tiny vibrations that insects in the grass are making to communicate food, aggression, sex, and the complexity of their worlds to other members of their species.

If I had a radio--or a suitable set of radios--I might become aware of some of the thousands of channels of words, music--even TV pictures and signals from car doors, gates, gps locators, and the like--that course in and around and through me.

My senses of smell and taste are crude bludgeons compared to the rapier sensitivity of a dog's nose; how keenly and enthusiastically it samples and savors the faint breeze! Some pollinating insects can detect suitable flowers over a mile away. Some fish swarm toward an attractive taste in their water emanating from several miles away.

It is true that my sensory apparatus bombards me with information and fills me with delight, but it, in fact, notices barely one hundredth of one percent of the data flow around me.