Sights Sounds Smells and Scotoma


A good movie draws me in. I soon forget I’m sitting in a large hall surrounded by strangers.  I forget I’m looking at a flat surface from which millions of tiny mirrors are reflecting back the colored light from a projector.  I grimace and laugh at the predicaments of the characters with whom I am identifying or I ooh and aah at the startlingly close scenes of iconic animals and their remarkable behavior.  When I go to an iMax theater the experience of an alternate reality is especially intense.

I occasionally get a visual scotoma  When I do I notice a flickering arc of sparkles overlaying  part of my vision.  I can’t look at it directly; if I try, the shimmering rainbow moves so as to remain in the same part of my visual field, always a bit off to one side.   Closing one eye or the other makes no difference.

I know neither the movie nor the flickering rainbow is “real”.  If I reach out to touch the scotoma I feel nothing.  It is well established that the scotoma is originating not in my eyes or in the nerve fibers that transmit the series of blips from individual light receptors in my retina.  Instead it originates in the part of my brain where these digital sequences are being reassembled into a visual image and relayed to my consciousness.  Most of the time, I take for granted that  what I see is exactly what is out there, plain and simple.   But the scotoma makes me reconsider. Here is what I mean.

Right now I am looking at the surface of my desk:  brown wood with sheets of white paper here and there; a shiny metallic pencil sharpener, some pencils, my computer screen with its flashing cursor and below it some black shiny keys on which are printed white letters and numbers.  From past experience I know there is no arc of flashing lights on my desk but it certainly looks to me as though it is there on the surface now.  That part of my brain reconstructing those blips is temporarily malfunctioning.  It is creating its own version of what I am seeing.   Then I imagine that I am a dolphin.

If I were a dolphin, that scotoma might still be there – but this time it would be a stuttering arc superimposed over a somewhat different reality. That reality would almost certainly not be the product of visual inputs.  Rather it would be assembled from the rich series of blips coming back to my brain from my acutely sensitive acoustic machinery as it picked up the returning echoes of the clicks I was sending out.  Instead of a brown grain-patterned desk surface my dolphin brain would be reconstructing a medium hard, ever-so-slightly-rough flat surface, though the edges and general shape would still be that of the desk I am working at. The sheets of paper scattered about would be there but probably perceived as rectangles with a slightly smoother texture than the desktop itself.  That metal pencil sharpener would probably be very “bright” and the pink pencil eraser tip – soft echo-damping rubber that it is – would probably be just a smudge.  The white letters of my computer keyboard  would be indistinguishable, echo-wise, from each hard plastic computer key on which it is printed – unless, of course, they were embossed there as well.  

But there would be more to it. Depending on the strength of my clicks and the sensitivity of my receiving apparatus I might even perceive a second layer  of objects – the stuff in the top drawer beneath the  desktop.  By assembling a second fainter series of returning echoes which vibrated their way back and forth through the desktop and created a sound silhouette of the rulers, stapler, paper clips and cough drops I keep in the underlying drawer, my dolphin consciousness would be “seeing” – or rather “hearing”- through the desk surface much as we see through a window. Of course the distant scene my human self looks at through that completely echo-opaque pane of glass, to my dolphin self, would be invisible.

And then there are bats.  Probably the same deal as dolphins.  After all, they fly around at high speed in total darkness and zero in on thousands of mosquito-sized insects nightly.  And what about the moles chasing earthworms and grubs under our lawn. What does their underground landscape “look” like.  And how would my desktop and computer “appear” to the mole after it had snuffled all over my desk and sniffed its entire surface in order to “see” it.

Any observant dog owner knows that the sensory input of greatest meaning  to their pet is not the incoming photons reflected off the surface of things, or the sounds it is hearing but the molecular traces of organic compounds wafting in the rivers of air through which it runs.

Some years ago, my wife and I were walking along the edge of a pond near our house with Mocha, our sweet labrador retriever.   About ten yards ahead we watched a sinuous brown mink emerge from the pond, run humpy inch-worm style across the path and disappear on the other side – all well out Mocha’s line of sight since she’d fallen a bit behind – probably sniffing the water’s edge for dead frogs she could roll in.  Shortly, she came bounding forward at full speed to regain her traditional position as pack leader.  Then, running pell-mell ahead of us, mid stride she appeared to hit a brick wall.   Head buckling under her front legs she did a full somersault – right where the mink had crossed the path moments earlier.  Like the act of throwing up one’s hands in response to an object flying fast at one’s face, that scent had triggered a set of reflexes just as powerful in Mocha.  After taking a moment to get a sense of where she had ended up, she bounded into the brush over the precise path the mink had followed.  It certainly looked as if that scent had instantaneously constructed in Mocha’s mind a useful version of the reality surrounding us, and one, incidentally, of which we humans were entirely unaware.  

After I began thinking this way I found myself playing this mind game now and then. I wonder what Helen Keller’s mind-map “looked like” to her.  Was it  an exclusively tactile representation of her surroundings similar to the one the blind heroine of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel, All the Light We Cannot See, gets from retracing with her finger the scale model of her town crafted by her father?

So let’s take this one step further.  Most of us are familiar with those eerie recordings of whale sounds.  The deep rumbles and songlike bleeps that carry long distances under water and are presumed to be whale communication.  In the past, when I’ve thought about this, I’ve imagined that what was going on was some sort of message or, if whales are as sophisticated as some believe, a kind of wordy symbolic language.  But if you are willing to imagine that a dolphin or a bat may be reconstructing a three dimensional landscape from returning echoes, what if those whales are actually sending out sounds from which the recipient whales’ brains immediately construct some sort of real-time landscape. Maybe the pitch and timbre of those deep booms paint a picture of the blue green seascape through which the whale is diving,  and those bleeps become, in the recipient whales consciousness, a school of soft tasty squid – the whole forming a virtual copy of the sending whale’s version of reality in the recipient’s consciousness.  Wouldn’t that be something!

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, if you think about it.  If a series of blips from our retina can reconstruct a sweeping visual landscape, if a sequence of four base pairs can recreate an entire organism, if a series of zeros and ones can create in our headset a 360 degree visual “virtual reality” why can’t those booms and bleeps transmit a whole non-visual but equally “real” reality in a whale’s brain. Instead of trying to figure out what whales are “saying” to one another in words perhaps we should try to decode their communications into a wordless but perhaps even more meaningful representation of what is going on in the sending whale’s consciousness.

As I’ve reread the drafts of this piece, I’ve grown increasingly self-conscious of the number of times I’ve put words in quotes. Usually when I read something peppered with this kind of punctuation I find it offputting and wish the writer had just said what they meant.  But when I try – as I have – to avoid using quotes in this essay it weakens my intended meaning.  Words like “appear”, “visible”, “bright”, etc do not have full equivalences for mentally reconstructing a non-visually dominated world.   I am also becoming increasingly aware of how our sensory hierarchy shapes our language and how both shape our “view” of the world – points more deeply explored in David Lukas’s interesting book, Language Making Nature

But back to the movies.  I do my best to avoid the ones with a typical formulaic series of tropes – couple find each other, fall in love, meet danger, undertake heroic and risky acts, save one another etc.  But sometimes I make mistakes and find myself bored and distracted.  That’s when my dolphin self takes over and I find myself looking at a huge blank monoechoic screen.  Then my attention lurches elsewhere.  All around me sit perfect strangers, many of them quite lovely.   The distracting thing is that their clothing transmits echoes very well.  At that point the details of the reality surrounding me becomes much more compelling than any Hollywood drama.


Tilting at Windmills

I was discussing renewable energy a while back with a neighbor.  His politics are a bit more to starboard than mine, but he’s a thoughtful fellow and has reached the conclusion, as have I, that climate change is a significant threat.  We both agreed on the need to develop a portfolio of non-fossil energy sources.  As we enumerated the costs and benefits of each type, we got to wind.

“Now there’s a technology that has a lot of promise.  Cheap, clean, and plenty of it to go around.  But I read the other day that there’s a noisy lobby against it.  Seems there’ s a bunch of people afraid that windmills are going to kill too many………” he paused dramatically and then his face contorted into a look of astonished disbelief   “……birds!   Can you imagine?  Holding America’s energy needs hostage because windmills may knock off some…….birds!”

Here was a tough choice.  Take on a set of values very different from mine and risk ruining the conversation, or move on to solar.  Coward that I am, I chose the sun.  But it got me thinking.

What is it, after all, that made the tradeoff such a no-brainer for my neighbor.  Was he unaware of the mountainous havoc our species is inflicting on Earth’s biodiversity?  Should I tactfully suggest he might enjoy reading  The Sixth Extinction in which Elizabeth Kolbert makes a powerful argument that our impact on the planet’s flora and fauna  is comparable to the asteroid collision of the Cretaceous–Paleogene era which wiped out three quarters of earth’s species and, irony of ironies, allowed Homo sapiens to evolve and flourish in the resultant vacuum?  Might information like this shift his values?

Or is it more a matter of religion?  Is he following his God’s directive to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”  If that’s the case, I should have steered the conversation towards what “having dominion” means.  Common parlance would have us think of mankind lording it over the rest of creation but there is clearly an element of husbandry and protection in that word.  After all, if rulers fail in their responsibility to keep their charges safe they don’t remain rulers for very long.

Or perhaps an economic argument would have appeal.  One of the things taken for granted about birds – bats as well – is the prodigious amount of pest control they perform – at no cost to farmers and no increase in the health risk or the price of food to the consumer.   An article in the March 2013 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin, researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimates the number of birds killed by wind turbines in the US in 2012 at 573,000.  And in the December 2013 issue of the Journal BioScience researcher Mark Hays, in a peer reviewed article, calculates current bat deaths from wind turbines in the US to be between 600,000 to 900,000 individuals.  That translates into a lot of boll weevils, corn borers and fat green tomato hornworms still munching away.

And then there’s  the contribution to the national economy of all those birdwatchers buying binoculars, birdhouses, spotting scopes and sunflower seeds.  That might have some sway, especially if my neighbor has some stock in Nikon or Bushnell

Of course none of these pragmatic considerations gets at the heart of what bothers me about  those half million plus birds getting smacked out of the sky each year.  For me and, I think, a good many similarly-wired folks, it’s a bit as if a bunch of Van Gogh paintings were tossed in the dump, or copies of The Sun Also Rises got burned, or the Olympics got cancelled one cycle, or TV programming was reduced by a couple of hours a week – stuff like that.  If one of those batted birds happened to be the brilliantly sun-struck black and gold oriole whose bell-clear note sails down at me from a tall tree as I walk out my door in May,  my world would definitely lose some of its richness and beauty.  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d even be willing to pay a couple of cents more on my electric bill each month so long as that oriole keeps coming back.

There’s an interesting difference between the paintings, the books, the sports accomplishments, the programming coming from a big flat screen TV and that oriole.  Those first four things are all creations by us, and their subjects, for the most part, happen to be……us.  The oriole, on the other hand……. but that’s a subject for another blog.

Thoughts on Catching a Fish

In a reflective moment I asked a close friend why we so loved to hunt and fish. “It’s just anachronistic,” he said, as though that explained it.

Both of us relish our time out of doors – away from cement, asphalt, glass and steel – and especially those priceless moments of intimacy with a fellow creature not of the human race.  The partridge bursting from brush beneath our feet.  The hare zigzagging away at full speed.   And not just during hunting or fishing seasons. The school of bluefish brushing our legs as we swim in the surf also thrills.

He’d rather row the boat while I cast, provided I hand him the rod every other time a fish is hooked.  Once on the line, we are connected to that other being, that beautiful product of evolution, or design – whatever.  And the connection is as intangible as it is material.

The fish has beaten the odds – floating as a defenseless egg on a hostile sea, schooling as a fingerling, evading sharks and gillnets for years in adulthood. It has plumbed dark depths, migrated in response to mysterious forces, felt the draw of mates.  It has a will, to survive.  We feel it directly in each jump and run. We too have a will,  however redundant or anachronistic, to bring it home to feed ourselves and our families in a way so much richer, at least to us, than the finest meal at the finest four star.  And in so doing the fish becomes us, at least in a materialistic sense.  The fact that its will does not brings us face to face with the Great Mystery, though our perhaps-wiser forebears thought it did.

Bringing home a piece of plastic-wrapped chicken from the supermarket has none of that.  Eating it, we sustain ourselves with a nearly synthetic product of our civilized economy.  Hens bred with breasts so huge that their legs give out, raised in warehouses with manufactured food delivered by conveyor, mass slaughtered with Henry Ford stainless technology, quick chilled, aseptically wrapped, transported, presented with Madison Avenue-designed aesthetic.  Is that what we become?

Let me gut my fish barehanded on a rock and toss its roe to the hungering gulls, knowing that in doing so I have sacrificed some of the next generation of bass.  Let me keep fresh in my mind the will that fueled its jumps and runs, and wonder if that spirit is now no more or has instead returned to some larger source from which it was simply borrowed or shared.  Let me ask if my own will may not come from and eventually return to a similar source or maybe the same.  Meanwhile, all those ineffable drives and desires and even thoughts are translated into concrete action by the sparkling synaptic machinery laid out by our DNA.

Anachronistic, yes, but there’s more to it than that.