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Sophie Rand

Student Engineering, The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art

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Can we ever know how another person "senses" the world?

In my Bioelectricity class this week, we learned about the cells
in our body that help us sense our environment: chemosensors in our
tongue that help us sense taste, for example, the photoreceptors in
our eye that sense light, and the hair cells in our ears that sense
the mechanical vibrations of sound, to name a few.

As a result, I recently revisited my answer to the age-old question of
“how do I know that the blue I see is the same blue you see?” that was
so startling and exciting to most 3rd graders playing baby Kierkegaard
a little bit differently. An answer could be that we just have to
trust that perception is guided by biology and that humans are
biologically identical to within 80% of our biological systems.

This answer, of course, raises new questions: even if you and I may
perceive the same blue, is that blue "real?" Where does sensation
leave off and perception begin, and how may we trust ourselves as we
try to compare them? Can we ever know how another person "senses" the
world? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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    Feb 16 2012: An interesting facet of this question is the role that emotions play in our perception of the world. Scientific understanding of how this works is still at a basic level, but experiments are showing that a change in emotional state can often affect one's perception. And of course the sense data we receive from the world has to pass through the filter of our attention as well, and this filter is highly sensitive to emotional context. All of this explains why, if we have a strong emotional association with a particular color, taste, smell, sound or texture, we start to observe it more often (and possibly differently) in the world.

    So, while I think it's reasonable to argue that our biological apparatus for sensing the world is fairly similar from person to person, that sensing process cannot in practice be decoupled from the processes of attentional filtering and emotional interpretation, which are likely to vary widely between people.

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