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).