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The Limitations of Human Perception, Part 1

Posted By T. AKA Ricky Raw On March 13, 2013 @ 10:54 AM In Cognitive Psychology,Psychology | 12 Comments

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Bruce-willis

Let’s do a thought experiment. The point of it will become clearer in future posts, but for now bear with me.

Imagine you went to another planet and met the natives there. By use of special machines, you were able to communicate with them.

An interesting thing you realize about these natives is that they have no noses. The dominant species of this planet has evolved to have no noses and has never had a sense of smell. They have never even developed language to cover concepts related to smell. There’s no equivalent word for odor, stinky, aromatic, fragrant, inhale, breathe, or any other words [8] that can be linked to a nose and a sense of smell.

Also, since flavor comes from one’s sense of smell, there are no equivalent words for tasty, delicious, flavor, flavorful, and so on. The sense of taste actually has to do with the sensations that food creates on our tongue via the taste buds. Flavor on the other hand comes from our sense of smell. To illustrate, if you pinch your nostrils really hard and then try to eat something like a lemon or a piece of bacon, the appropriate taste buds on your tongue will still tingle to indicate whether the food is sour or if it’s rich and fatty, but the food will register no flavor. 

How would you describe the sensations of scent and flavor to this species? Since all the information they’ve ever known in their lives has related to the senses of sight, taste bud tingles, touch, and hearing, you would be forced to try to convey the concept of smell using language and concepts related to those four senses. How could you pull it off?

Or how about if the species had evolved to have no eyes and therefore no one could see or was ever able to see. How would you describe the concept of sight to them, or give a visual description to them of something? Could you describe the color blue or green to people who have no idea what a color is in the first place?

But the irony is, the species with no sense of smell, who have never had a sense of smell, the would have no idea if you didn’t tell them that they were missing out on something. They would think that the four remaining senses they used to perceive the world around them was giving them a complete sense of objective reality. They would have no idea that there is a whole universe of potentially useful information right in their midst, all around them, that they can’t perceive and take in.

Over the history of the existence of their species, they would likely evolve other ways to compensate for the lack of ability to smell. Their eyes perhaps could evolve to the point where they can tell if food is spoiled simply by looking at or touching it. Their taste buds could evolve differently. Any of their remaining senses could become quantitatively or qualitatively different to compensate for their inability to smell.

So think of human beings. We perceive and explain the world using language and concepts limited by our five senses. We often believe that the information obtained using these five senses gives us an objectively accurate and complete representation of reality. Who knows how much potentially useful information is floating around us right in our midst, but invisible to use because it falls outside the realm of our five available senses, just like the aliens in my example live in a world of smells that they are oblivious to?

The point I’m trying to make is, what we perceive to be objective reality is not actually reality, but is an approximation of reality constructed using what limited tools of perception we currently have available to us. We’re going to be revisiting this topic a lot, so it’s important to understand it.

One example I can think of us happened in Haiti to my family during the recent earthquake. My family members who survived it all told me that before each tremor happened, the dogs and other animals would flip out and run for cover. I found this fascinating and started doing research on it, and sure enough it’s true, as you can read here [9] and here [10]. Some people claim that their animals started getting agitated days, weeks, or even months before natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. A video about this can be seen below:

Scientists aren’t sure whether this is because of dogs having an extra-heightened version of a sense humans already have, like hearing, or because of dogs having a whole extra sixth sense that humans don’t have at all. If it’s the latter, you can see the difficulty scientists are presented with. Trying to describe a brand new sixth sense using our current language, which relates to the five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, would be like my thought experiment of trying to explain smell and scent to a species using language only related to the senses of sight, taste buds, touch, and hearing.

Just like the hypothetical species wouldn’t even have the cognitive tools to even properly process scent concepts, if dogs do have a sixth sense that we don’t know about, we as humans may lack the cognitive tools to properly process whatever that sense is, so we may never end up being able to comprehend or explain it.

Which leads to my next point about the limits of human perception: in addition to our five senses, human perception is limited by the established cognitive framework, thinking habits, and processing capabilities the human brain has developed over your lifetime. The human brain is the central area where much of our sensory intakes are perceived, processed, interpreted, and responded to. The limitations of how our specific brains work lead to limitations in how well we can process and perceive reality via the sensory information we take in. These cognitive limitations on reality perception play a big role in our personality conflicts, our susceptibility to logical fallacies and con artists, and the cognitive distortions that often cause us problems in our daily dealings.

The ways in which the features of our brain contribute to our limitations in perceiving objective reality will be the focus of the next installment of this series.


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