We Are All Inattentive Superheroes

#Science

Fri, May 27th, 2011 22:00 by capnasty NEWS

We are generally raised to believe that our senses are pretty lame: we can't see like eagles, can't smell like dogs and can't hear like bats. According to Neuroscientist Bradley Voytek, however, it turns out that we actually do:

[...] humans can, in fact, detect as few as 2 photons entering the retina. Two. As in, one-plus-one.

It is often said that, under ideal conditions, a young, healthy person can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. That's like being able to see a candle in Times Square from Stamford, Connecticut. Or seeing a candle in Candlestick Park from Napa Valley.

Similarly, it appears that the limits to our threshold of hearing may actually be Brownian motion. That means that we can almost hear the random movements of atoms.

We can also smell as few as 30 molecules of certain substances.

So, the question begs, why don't our senses feel... superhuman? Because, says Voytek, we're not paying enough attention.

You see, in the experiments testing the physical limits of the human sensory systems, the subjects involved are dedicating a lot of attention to the one sense being tested, almost certainly at the exclusion of the other senses.

I think we all have a pretty intuitive grasp of this. And sometimes our intuitive corrections are pretty damn funny. If you watch people's behavior carefully you'll notice some strange behaviors that we do.

Have you ever been driving around, trying to find a particular address, and then turn down the radio as you get close to where you think your destination is? Why would you turn down the radio when what you're doing is looking for an address? Seems pretty silly.

Do you close your eyes when you're trying to do calculations in your head? Why?

I think the answer to these questions is because we're trying to reduce sources of noise to maximize the amount of attention we can pay to the task at hand.

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