Sensation & Awareness

A ballet of the flowers -  time lapse video which shows the limits of our senses:

All things by immortal power, 
Near and Far 
To each other linked are, 
That thou canst not stir a flower 
Without troubling of a star.
  —  Francis Thompson


Once I was driving just after sunset out in rural New Mexico near the VLA - Very Large Array radiotelescope. Suddenly I had to swerve, to miss an 800 pound elk, or so I thought at first. After my brain got a closer look, it was just a mailbox beside the road. This was what we call a false positive. I am glad it was not a false negative, where I thought it was a mailbox and hit an elk! Yes, they are BIG !!

Just like the control systems I build for factories, warehouses and instruments that are connected to cameras and conveyors, our brains are connected to our classic five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Our brains try to build a model of the world outside our heads based on information from our senses. It is especially sensitive to motion, or unusual sounds, like a predator nearby on the plains of Africa, where we come from. Sometimes our perceptions shift back and forth:


That great ability to perceive information in data kept us safe from danger in the wild, but it also causes us some problems, especially in modern society and technological civilization. In fact, our brains are so powerful that most of the scene you see before you right now is not coming from outside your brain. Your brain is making it up, from what it has seen before and what it expects. Only when there is an extreme mismatch between our inner model and outside reality will our brain attempt to update with new data. What do see below? Rabbit or duck?


And then what do you see here?


Click for full size image in a new window.

And then what do you see after I tell you there is a Dalmatian dog sniffing the ground?

Also, we never saw rooms with straight lines, doors, windows and corners while we were developing on the plains of Africa, but your brain has built a model of the behavior of rooms that you learned while growing up  in houses and other buildings. Unfortunately the model breaks down easily as demonstrated in the Ames Room:

Awareness of the outside world comes to us and all cells, plants and animals through our senses. Now science is teaching us that the entire world is a network of interconnected information.

For example, we now know that the lowest plants and animals exhibit learning down to the cellular level. Even bacteria have awareness or at least its beginnings, but then so do we. What's the difference? Maybe awareness is a matter of varying scale rather than kind. 

What plants talk about. You don’t think plants are aware and communicate? Just watch what comes next in this video from  PBS.

The following video is a mind bender, you will have to think about this one,
but I promise it is worth your time. It is spectacular... 

So allocate some time [about 50 minutes] for it, especially the last section about the "Mother Tree" as in the movie "Avatar," at about 42:00 ff.:

You can read more about perception in plants at Wikipedia

Now let’s move on to animals. The main difference is that most animals are mobile. And animals are totally dependent on plants for their nutrition. Plants connect to each other at a cellular level with chemicals while animals use neurons. Still chemistry, but now using electrical pulses.

Once we examine multi-cellular animals, we encounter the simplest ones, like sponges, jellyfish and then the comb jellies. Here is my personal favorite for their sheer beauty - comb jellies - neurons but no brains. I have always loved comb jellies ever since I learned of them. Recently, we are learning that they seem to be on an evolutionary branch all their own. 


Comb jelly neurons are so different from the rest of us that they pose the question of whether neurons evolved twice.

Comb Jellies - beautiful in their simplicity, with a nervous system but no brain.
[Like some people we know?]

But the sponges lead to us and the comb jellies don’t. So next we find  the really intelligent non vertebrates - cuttlefish and octopus. They have better eyes than us or at least the light sensitive part evolved facing the incoming light, unlike mammal eyes. They don’t live long, but they are clever. I wonder if we could say the same about us. 


We know some other animals have senses and awareness that we don’t - such as acute hearing far beyond our range, or vision into the ultraviolet. Sometimes I take kids out into the wild or star watching. Often they are bored. They can't see anything because they are looking without seeing. 

Sometimes I watch my Saluki sighthounds out in the desert. I think humans have better eyesight, but the Salukis see more - many things that I miss - but that is why they are called sighthounds, isn't it?  Here is my amazing champion Saluki Pharlap scanning the desert - a truly amazing guy, now gone as we all will be one day.


After years of looking, as I learn more and more how to see, I am amazed at what I was previously unaware of - and how many other beings are here exploring as well. … 

We are now building machines that contain as many elements as the human brain. But we don’t have a clue how to program them. Maybe the clue is to program our machines as nature programs us - through learning. All of childhood and most of adulthood is learning how to program our own brain. Although computers are blanks our brains don’t start out blank. We have a built in language processor, for example, that turns on at age one or two for a few years. Children become amazing little language sponges.

We can learn a lot about ourselves and our brains by watching how children develop. First is that amazing period from age 1 to 4 when that language learning machine in their head turns on, as so aptly described by Chomsky. And then later, at about age 6 to 8 is when their conceptual ability turns from the concrete to the abstract as described by Piagét. And finally as irascible teenagers, when they differentiate themselves, develop physical maturity and hit that athletic peak in their 20s to 30s. 

Is it all downhill from there? I think we continue to reprogram our brains our entire lives. Actually the wisdom from experience increases faster than our bodies and minds decline, for a while at least. [At least that is what I tell myself in the mornings.]  I often substitute teach at local schools and love the way kids sparkle with life and energy - exploring their new world like puppies or kittens.

Here is another explorer below, using her big brown eyes. She explores Winnie the Pooh and her own imagination. She will also give you an introductory French lesson - an impressive demonstration of the language processing and learning ability inside that network computer behind those big brown eyes and indeed every small child's head. Enjoy, she's quite a story teller, maybe an author one day.:

SO, Consider the growth of thought, from bacteria that are aware of each other on a chemical scale, to plants communicating with local plants and animals through emitted gases [aromatherapy anyone?], to the local ecosystem interconnecting through roots in the soil network, and extending on to us as a group of thinking individuals that interact together as a whole.

Remember, each of us is a colony of cells - that think - a WE, rather than an I, colonies of cells living in a skin bag full of sea water. A colony of cells that communicate and think. Ever think of yourself as “we” instead of “I” ?

The human head has about 80 billion neurons, with trillions of connections. Our little computers seem like toys in comparison, and yet we are approaching the scale of nature in assembling thinking machines. What's next?

Next >> Bodies & Minds

==================== just parking some things here as I work:

Some especially relevant works to which we will refer in detail. These are worth getting your own copy.:

 - Shannon: The Mathematical Theory of Communication 
 - Weiner: Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.

William Poundstone: The Recursive Universe - relates the scale of building blocks needed for self reproduction to the scale of the the universe and pictures on your TV screen. I just receoived a note from Poundstone saying that Dover will reprint this book in April, 2013. PS: 2013-10-21: I now have the reprint.

Bruner: A Study of Thinking, 1956, perhaps dated now, but a good starting point.

Pinker:        The Language Instinct
                    the blank slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
                    How the Mind Works

Chomsky:    New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind
                    The Architecture of Language

Piaget:         Developmental Psychology 

© Gareth Harris 2019                                      Email:                  See also: