10 May 2011


WE SUPERHEROES. In his blog Oscillatory Thoughts (a brilliant title), neuroscientist Bradley Voyter submits a startling thought -- We Are All Inattentive Superheroes. In the realm of sensory perception, we experience the world around us in detail that is infinitely more minute and fine-tuned than we'd previously thought possible. Our eyesight may not be as acute as that of a prairie falcon, our hearing may not be as sensitive as that of a bat, our sense of smell may not be as fabled as that of a dog. Or are they?

Voyter's entertaining and somewhat jaw-dropping research has revealed that "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 .... Similarly, it appears that the threshold of our 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.

" .... These facts suggest that we all have some level of what we'd normally think of as 'super human' sensory abilities already .... [Those abilities are merely masked by] attention .... We're trying to reduce certain sources of noise [unessential sensory information] to maximize the amount of attention we pay to the task at hand. The sounds of the radio capture your attention, making it harder to visually search for the address numbers on the house you're trying to find. Visual distractions in our surroundings may prevent us from maximally focusing our attention internally when trying to do math problems in our heads."

In short, we filter out much of the information our sense organs provide to us, precisely because our abundantly large brains have other things to focus on. Yet on a subconscious level, we do notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations of touch which may be signals of danger. A movement out of the corner of our eye may save us from a traffic accident. The sudden silence in a forest clearing warns us that something is amiss. An apparent premonition is usually a subtle sensory warning -- heat from a stove top, the smell of milk gone bad.

We're all familiar with the observation that if a person loses the use of one sense, the other senses become heightened. There is evidence showing that the area of the brain formerly devoted to the lost sense, compensates by becoming active in the functioning of the remaining senses. It all makes sense. Check out the Inattentive Superheroes link for more information, and also to view several videos demonstrating how our senses function, and how they adapt to changing conditions.

Now all that remains is to choose a classy superhero name and costume!

RAILROAD. On this date in 1869, the last spike was driven linking the westward- and eastward-construction halves of the nation's first transcontinental railroad. The event was significant on several levels. For the first time, the east and west coasts of the U.S. were connected by a relatively swift and reliable passenger and freight system, quickly rendering obsolete transport by horseback, wagon, or the torturous six-month voyage around the tip of South America. The burgeoning railroad system also opened up vast new areas of the heartland for settlement, sounding a death knell for millions of square miles of native habitat, native wild species, the seasonal migrations of bison, and the established way of life for Indian tribes who were here first. Every event of "progress" has its price. Sometimes the consequences are so far-reaching and unpredictable that if we had it to do over, one wonders whether we might choose a different course.

AIRFARES. As part of the NYTimes series "Acts of Mild Subversion", Nate Silver offers timely advice on How to Beat High Airfares. Given the skyrocketing cost of air travel, the ever-shrinking volume of space allotted to each passenger seat, delays and intrusive searches imposed by TSA, and airline surcharges for services (meals, checked baggage, use of the bathroom) which were formerly free, it pays to understand how to (legally) use the system to your own advantage. Click on the link for a concise description of "hidden-city ticketing", and advice on how best to utilize this little-known tactic. You could end up saving a bundle on your next flight within the U.S.

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