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Friday, 3 July 2015

Piercing perception, part 1: A mole new world.

Introducing the umwelt.

You could be highly poised, caffeinated and keen; the type of person who remembers even the smallest detail, which others overlook and still, by the very nature of being human, only experience a slither of what the universe has to offer. Our capacity to understand our surrounding is limited to our 5 senses (arguably, there are more), our size and how we manipulate science and technology. This is known as the umwelt: the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.

Our World.

Our senses, touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight are extremely efficient at providing us with the relevant information necessary to exist, however we know that surrounding us are microwaves, x-rays, radio waves (but to name a few) which bounce off or pass through our bodies constantly, and we have no natural way of being attuned to their presence. Likewise, our size restricts us to what we can perceive. As we attend to our daily duties we are no more aware of the plight of a bacterium as we are to a star dying in a distant universe. We are creatures who live in a world of a certain size, who can operate successfully without  consideration for happenings on a micro or macro scale.

Despite our size and senses, we have evolved to deftly wield the tools of science and technology to expand our understanding of our universe. We can detect and utilise x-rays for medical reasons, microwaves for the convenience of cooking and look upon the stars and microbial matter with ease. However, even though we can artificially expand our umwelt, this leads to an intriguing question: What exists beyond it?

The world of the star-nosed mole.

Consider the star nosed mole, found in the wetlands of Canada and North East America...

...it is roughly the size of rat, lives underground and in water, and is blind. Initially we may think that this creature has a very limited umwelt. It lives in the dark, in the cold and cannot see: a pitiful existence, especially if you can imagine how you would live, as a human  in these conditions. However, the star-nosed mole is an incredible creature and that has the most sensitive touch organ of all mammals; its star shaped nose. Each digit-like appendage (ray) has approximately 25,000 sensory neurons, in contrast, the human hand has only 17,000 (Smithsonian.com). The mole can, by puffing out air underwater, sense with its star where prey is, it can move each ray with speed, it can touch up to 12 different objects per second and can detect electrical fields (Epic Wildlife).

A mole new world.

Great. Good for the mole. But what about us? Imagine, if through the use of technology we could utilise the sensitivity of the mole's nose. Imagine that we could sense electrical fields or could experience touch 32,000 times more than we can already. This has an obvious benefit for those that are blind. For example, the technology could allow the individual to know their surroundings by using their own breathing (much as the mole uses its puffing) and the feedback from it to sense objects and people. However, beyond this initial application, what if we could all sense our surroundings this way, layering the information we receive from the technology over that which we receive with our eyes. What if we could overlay, on top of that, being able to perceive electrical fields? Our perception of our world would be transformed completely, and so too would our interaction with it.

The star-nosed mole is just one exception of the animal kingdom, with fantastic abilities. Think about how our world would alter if we had the infrared capabilities of the pit viper or the powerful nose of the bloodhound? From these super powers we would be able to sense things that were there all along, but which had previously been inaccessible to us, thus expanding our umwelt. These new insights could potentially yield scientific breakthroughs in natural sciences, medicine and technology. 

Ahem! Excuse me... we already have the technology. What is your point?

We already have night vision goggles, Geiger counters, thermometers, powerful telescopes and electron microscopes, etc, to view our world. I agree. Although we do not use them, about our person, all of the time. The technology is limited to use in certain scenarios, allowing us momentarily to expand our perception. They are (and I do not mean to trivialise their worth) accessories to who we are and what we are capable of. The technology that I speak of would be worn most of the time, as one would wear, for example: regular glasses, transforming our ability instantly from our command. This could be wearing something akin to Google Glass and saying "Infrared vision" allowing the user to see infrared, or to say "microscopic vision" and instantly being able to zoom in and focus on minuscule objects. Or perhaps allowing one eye to see the changed view, whilst the other stays normal, permitting the user to create an augmented view. Having the power to experience the world at will, without the constraints of a science lab, would truly be as close as a humankind could get to having extra senses, without invasive alterations or through the natural process of evolution.

Final thought.

In summary, there is enormous potential in using technology to reveal the various aspects of our world which are currently hidden to us, That we may be able to toggle 'on' or 'off' powers which have, thus far, been confined to select species or  the realms of fiction is not only exciting, but will enable us to make rapid advances and discoveries in science and technology.  Although an equally thrilling prospect is, what else exists in the universe that exceeds what we can tap into with technology, and what lies beyond our collective knowledge. The nature of this mystery means that there are potentially limitless discoveries to be made from revealing our unseen world.

In my next post :

Piercing perception, part 2: The plug and play brain (due 4th-6th July), I shall discuss whether our brains are capable of adapting to receiving sensory information from new technology.


Epic Wildlife (2014) Star-nosed mole, viewed 2nd July 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Egz2f5_Ip3U>

Novis, J. (2015) perception infographic, viewed 2nd July 2015,

USSLC (2014) Bubble burst, viewed 2nd July 2015, <http://usstudentloancenter.org/student-loan-bubble-not-going-to-burst/>

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