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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: You ask a fascinating question, Sophie!

    I'm further intrigued by the hard neurosciences trajectory of this thread. To expand on the concept of nurture, while sensory exposure in the early years allows those crucial senses to develop (and vice versa), it springs from one element of perceptual selectivity. I am constantly receiving sensory input from my body, but my brain has to work to determine what is relevant to my awareness. As such, even if we take in the same images, the same colours, textures, contrast, movement and so on as sensory input, an enormous deal of it may not make the VIP list into our consciousness (so to speak) and that selection process vary will in many ways, depending on genetic predisposition and environmental exposure.

    Further, it pays to consider mental priming. If you, my closest friend and I are having a conversation together, I will likely be able to "read" her better. So, while we sense the same things in terms of wavelengths, light level etc., I will be more perceptually aware of her through experience, and thus will actually "see" more. In a different example, those being robbed at gunpoint typically give very poor descriptions of the suspect - often because all they were really looking at was the gun.

    I believe that this trust you mentioned is our perpetually evolving schema of what it is to be a person. I can only see your world through my window of experience, and thus can only relate to you through my terms. Think of it like speaking two perceptual languages. How much gets lost in translation, then, is anyone's guess.
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      Feb 20 2012: Hi Aldan. You said "I can only see your world through my window of experience, and thus can only relate to you through my terms. "
      Perhaps you can only understand another's 'inner world' or emotional world or conceptual world' based on your own experience, but there is an overlap of shared external reality as well as a collegial agreement about reality that mitigate or minimize our misunderstanding of reality in the larger context. There are innumerable "terms of agreement" that enable and encourage understating between people. For example Helen Keller would not have been able to understand our reality if it was not also her reality, regardless of perception.

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