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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 19 2012: For the moment, the answer is no. We cannot know that we perceive the world similarly or differently, we can only conjecture based on the (dis)similarity of observations made by various individuals. However, we do know that experiencing similar events in different ways will often have the effect of causing a person to be less subjective about the way they and others react to said stimuli. But even the most objectively driven minds will have difficulty understanding the views of another when they don't have the requisite knowledge and/or experience.

    When science has advanced to the point where we understand how the brain is constructed, we could theoretically modify some of the brain's circuits, thus solving this dilemma. The medium itself is completely different, but the actions performed would be similar to swapping out IC chips on a motherboard. If you can figure out which chips should be substituted where, it is possible that the motherboard would still function the same, even though the chips chosen might be completely different. Since the brain is more fault tolerant than a motherboard, you should also be able to swap in a set of circuits which are functionally similar, but ultimately different. After the brain has adapted to the new input and output created by the modified function, you might see things from a different perspective.

    You could use this knowledge to change how a person's brain processes information, thereby bridging the understanding gap without subjecting a person to the events which created the circuitry in question. For example, you could make a petty thief decide on their own that stealing is wrong; just modify the circuits related to theft, and make them feel revulsion rather than enjoyment. However, abuse of such a technology carries equally weighty implications, which makes understanding the human brain a dangerous endeavor. If negative modifications could be easily scaled and propagated, the result might be worse than an atom bomb.

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