Thursday, August 27, 2015

Through Other Eyes

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have senses that behave differently from those we actually have.  Not that I'm complaining; our senses are totally amazing as they are.  But, for example, how does a dog see the world when out for a walk?  As she goes down the path, all her interest is in the smells.  She's "reading the newspaper." She hardly bothers to look where she's going! Visually her world is in black and white because a dog’s eyes lack the cones that allow us to split the light up into wavelength regions that our brains can interpret as colors.  Probably that’s so that she can see better in lower light than we can—an advantage for predators that may be hunting at night. 
But at the same time, the dog is getting scent information much richer than ours.  How does her brain integrate this information?  As a ghostly shadow of the previous occupant of that space?  Or is it kept separate—rich information about the past, but in no way confused with the present?  I would guess the latter, yet I’ve seen dogs shy from the smell of something dangerous as though the threat was still there.
For that matter, how do we know that we all perceive colors the same way or even in a similar way?  Yes, we will all agree that the wavelengths around 550 nm are green (unless one of us suffers from some form of color blindness), but how can we tell if our perceptions of green are the same.  Maybe my green is your red?

Then, of course, there are lots of 'colors' out there that we can’t see at all simply because our eyes are not sensitive outside the very narrow wavelength range that we call “visible” light.  Probably that's because the range we can see is where the highest amount of energy reaches the Earth through its atmosphere.  It starts around 400 nm with the blue and finishes around 650 nm in the red.  The shorter wavelengths start with the ultraviolet (much of which is filtered out by the atmosphere fortunately) and the longer wavelengths are the infrared running into the thermal.
There’s lots of useful information in what’s sometimes called the near infrared - the wavelength range starting just after red.  For one thing, vegetation reflects strongly in that region, pushing away the heat energy. This sudden jump in reflectance is called the “red edge” and its strength and position can be used to obtain indicators of plant health.  For this reason, the satellites that supply information for GoogleEarth, for example, actually measure the near infrared as well.  They take four simultaneous images – one in the blue, one in the green, one in the red, and one in the infrared.  This is no problem for most digital sensors because they aren't as restricted in sensitivity as our eyes are.  In fact, often digital cameras have filters to block out the infrared because it can cloud or haze the image.
Here is  a gray scale image of the infrared. White in these images will be vegetation, not snow.

Many photographers and artists have tried to show us the world with other eyes by representing the infrared as one of the colors we usually see.  The results can be quite amazing.


The image below was created by Irish photographer and artist Richard Mosse.  It’s of Lac Vert in the Congo.  Take a look at his powerfully dramatic images here

Lac Vert in the Congo by Richard Mosse

And sometimes we can see a lot more interesting detail if we look with other eyes, such as this galaxy example.

Once you get to the longer wavelengths, you get into the thermal range and now it's not the reflection of the light that is interesting, but rather the emission of the light from the item. Really what is happening is that we are translating the different temperatures to different colors with red usually representing the hottest and blue the coolest.

Of course, all of these images are, in the end, just representations of these other light ranges as the colors we're used to seeing every day.  We can’t really see them as part of our world with our eyes any more than we can visualize the history of a path with our noses.

Michael - Thursday


  1. And that's just vision. I think If I had the scenting ability of a dog I would go crazy. Or just throw up a lot.

  2. I thought some bright spark had now discovered dogs can see in colour. They can certainly tell brown ( chocolate) from orange ( the medication hidden in the chocolate). And they (well some breeds) have a visual focus that sees movement to the exclusion of all else. My other half has this also- when my hand goes near a credit card....

  3. All I want is the eyes of an eagle - resolution is about five times better than ours. The size is about right, so we could fit them without too much hassle. Imagine being able to see an ant from the top of a 10-story building! Or a rabbit from two miles!

    Coming to think of it, why would I imagine those things? But I'd certainly like to do them.

  4. Stan, think what the bugs in the carpet would look like? You'd spend your life hoovering!

    1. Don't you and Stan realize that mothers already have those eye?. At least mine did...every time I did something wrong. Yes EvKa, she was a very busy woman.

  5. I have NO desire for an enhanced sense of smell. I'm already terrified of going to public gatherings for fear of being gassed by perfumes, colognes, hair shampoos and treatments... shudder.

    And, Jeff... there was NEVER any doubt. Not only a busy woman, but also a saint.

  6. Caro is right (as usual). The issue with dogs is that they have two types of cones - not three, as we have. This gives them a limited discrimination of hues. Interesting article on the topic at:
    Thanks Caro!

  7. I remember reading that the mantis shrimp sees far more colors and spectra than human eyes can see, and wondering what the world must look like through their odd, alien eyes. It's fascinating to consider how the other inhabitants of our planet see it!