With their wonderful noses, how does the world appear to a dog? Does a bat's echolocation augment their vision or does it create a separate model of their world? Does your perception of reality differ from mine?
Brookhaven National Labs was a large enough reserve that it had its own wildlife. Deer, raccoons, weasels, owls ... even a family of beavers that descended from zoo escapees decades before. In the Summer I'd take a break at dusk to watch the show that would develop in the formal garden the particle physics building wrapped around. A bright light attracted insects which, in turn, brought in up to a dozen little brown bats. They were using sound and vision, but their echolocation calls were far removed from my hearing. You could try to characterize how good their echolocation must be but, as I learned after talking to a few experts, too many of the important parameters were unknown at the time.
We may feel we have a good sense of what the world must look like, but our senses only sample small bits of reality. We live slightly in the past. Our perception of the present - our sense of 'now' - is a window about three seconds long. Our eyes send signals that are very different from images to the brain where a three dimensional model is created. Some of that visual information is averaged over periods as long as fifteen seconds to make our model appear smooth. We build three dimensional models of our surroundings with acoustic signals, but vision is a dominant sense so we usually don't 'see' that model as a solid reality. A dog's world would be very different as smell is a major sense for them.
We can easily be fooled by our senses, but mostly we're good enough at model building to survive and find great richness in the world that surrounds us. We can get into trouble assessing abstract risk as we're wired with some rather strong model and survival biases. Proper risk assessment often demands analysis and that turns out to be problematic - but another subject.
We extend our senses and build microscopes and telescopes and shift the signal to something we can grok. We record nature at great resolution over short periods or over long periods and adjust the data so we can understand it. We've created a tool called science that creates objectivity over the long term. This tool building has extended our senses and we're beginning to integrate these extensions making us something different.
Places like Brookhaven are dedicated to moving the frontiers of our perceptions. Physicists have a odd method to build microscopes to see the very small. The trick is to slam objects together and sift through the fantastically small and the collisions play out over periods of time that can be more than fifteen orders of magnitude removed from the world we normally perceive. When you study them they seem very real. You develop a useful visualization that allows play and new questions.
Paul would do quantum electrodynamic and chromodynamic calculation with his fingertips. Feynman diagrams were a beautiful shorthand for thinking about the collisions of particle physics. They are very visual, but Paul's sense of vision and touch were mixed. He could feel what they looked like and he would stare into space doing his back of the envelope calculations - calculations that would normally create clouds of chalk dust around a blackboard - with his exquisite sense of touch. Of course we didn't think anything about it.
I had never heard about synesthesia. It sounded crazy - people that had crossed senses. A neurologist and his students came out from Columbia with a hypothesis that this synesthesia was common in physicists and mathematicians. They explained some people would see certain letters or numbers in color, someone might taste a musical note, ... someone might mix sound and vision. You could imagine crossing any pair of senses and perhaps even more.
About fifty of us were tested. Paul had a synesthesia that mixed touch and vision. Several people saw letters and numbers in colors. I turn out to have a form of chromosynesthia - sounds get mixed with colors. It never occurred to me that my perception of nature might be different from someone else's, but parts of my vision and sound are mixed - I build a world model that is an admixture of the two rather than one with crisp distinctions. I kept quiet about it for years - it wasn't well accepted at the time and people would treat me as if I was crazy and/or ask questions that I couldn't answer.
There are many types of synesthesia. There is some evidence that we're born with a lot of this sort of wiring, but a great pruning takes place in the first few months that leaves us with orthogonal senses. One can imagine evolutionary reasons for this. The type of synesthesia I have is rare, but almost unknown in very coordinated people. Other synesthesias would have been undetectable until writing was invented. It may result from a problem during the great neural pruning in a baby's brain, but it may be so harmless that it isn't weeded out by selection.1
I know one person, a composer, who can taste sound and another who can feel sight. There are subcategories and some are - well - remarkable. This morning I caught the latest episode of NPR's new Invisibilia podcast. The first segment features mirror-touch synesthesia - an extremely rare flavor that impacts the way a person lives. (The second segment is fun too) If you have the chance I recommend the audio rather than the transcript. Invisibilia has great production values.
Does a bat build something like color in the echolocation model in their mind?
1 There is some evidence that it is useful for abstract thinking - it is much more common among physicists, mathematicians and musicians than in the general population.
Excellent on a cold Winter morning. This makes enough for two or three people. Nuts and fruit are great on top.
° 1 cup quinoa
° 2 cups water
° 2 cups soy milk or almond milk
° 2 or 3 tbl chopped walnuts or pecans
° 2 tsp ground cinnamon
° 1/4 cup maple syrup
° toast the quinoa for a medium hot pan for about 30 second and add the water. Bring it to a boil and reduce to a simmer with a lid partly covering. Cook for about 15 minutes until it is fluffy - don't let it dry out.
° transfer the quinoa to a blender and blend to smooth with the milk , maple syrup and cinnamon. Test and see if it is sweet enough
° pour into bowls and sprinkle on the nuts and some fruit if you like.