Our Amazing Senses

As neur­os­cient­ist Brad­ley Voytek points out, “we’re used to think­ing of our senses as being pretty shite”, and this is mostly thanks to the pleth­ora of anim­als that can see, hear, smell and taste far bet­ter than we can. “We can’t see as well as eagles, we can’t hear as well as bats, and we can’t smell as well as dogs”, he con­cludes… and that seems to be the con­sensus on every nature doc­u­ment­ary I’ve ever watched.

How­ever our brain is a mag­ni­fi­cent con­struc­tion (and our senses are equally as won­drous), and so Voytek tries to reverse this idea by explain­ing just how sens­it­ive and amaz­ing our senses really are:

It turns out that humans can, in fact, detect as few as 2 photons enter­ing the ret­ina. Two. As in, one-plus-one. It is often said that, under ideal con­di­tions, a young, healthy per­son can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. That’s like being able to see a candle in Times Square from Stam­ford, Con­necti­c­ut. Or see­ing a candle in Can­dle­stick Park from Napa Val­ley.*

Sim­il­arly, it appears that the lim­its to our threshold of hear­ing may actu­ally be Browni­an motion. That means that we can almost hear the ran­dom move­ments of atoms.

We can also smell as few as 30 molecules of cer­tain sub­stances. […]

These facts sug­gest that we all have some level of what we’d nor­mally think of as “super human” sens­ory abil­it­ies already.

But what the hell? If I can sup­posedly see a candle from 30 miles away, why do I still crack my frakkin’ shin on the cof­fee table when it’s only slightly dark in my liv­ing room?

It may not sur­prise you to hear that the answer to that ques­tion is atten­tion.

* For the Europeans among you, that’s more than a fifth longer than the Chan­nel Tun­nel’s under­wa­ter sec­tion (or Hyde Park to Stansted Air­port for the Lon­don­ers).