On the Nature of What We See

We cannot actually see what things are. In a sense, we can only see what they are not. This is the nature of sight.

You see, we see photons that impact the photoreceptors of our retina. When the photon is absorbed the energy is sensed and then information set to the visual cortex and it’s auxillary neural regions to form a perception. This process of sight means we are understanding the photons that came from something, not that something itself. We can infer qualities of the source of the photons, but never can we “see” it in any other way than the disembodied photons. This leaves an inherent mystery to the nature of things that are not visible; i.e. that are not photons. It also leaves us with a sort of indirect version of reality. The underlying matter that photons fly from is not our view of the world. Rather, our reality with respect to matter is just radiation relevant to that matter.

When scientists use machines to image atoms and molecular structures they are still bound to this indirect reality. For instance, an atom is smaller than the wavelengths of light we can see with our photoreceptors. The visible spectrum ranges from 380 to 700 nanometers; violet to red, respectively. An atom is around 0.1 to 0.2 nanometers. Essentially, scientists use photons or electrons of much smaller wavelengths than what’s visible to us – such as x-rays with a range of 0.01 to 10 nanometers – to interact with these small scales, then use machines and analysis to convert that to the visible light scale and display it on a computer monitor.

Ultimately, we will never see matter itself because we can only perceive a small range of matter’s radiation.

To add another aspect to this perspective, everything we see has two layers of lag. The first, which is negligible, is that light is not instant. It interacts with electrons and travels through spacetime at no more than 670,616,629 mph. On Earth, that’s rounded off to instant, though. The serious lag is biophysical. When visible light interacts with a photoreceptor it takes time for the neuron to send the first signal down it’s axon, then for the resulting cascade of neural actions to bring that light into sense then into perception. This duration can be on the order of 50 to 150 milliseconds or more, depending on the stimulus and conditions.

So not only do we indirectly see the universe via radiation, but our processing of that speed-limited radiation is delayed. By the time we make an assumption about matter based on it’s photons, it’s mysterious nature is already doing something different than what those photons are telling us.

22 Comments

    1. Yeah I think we’re better off keeping the vision to a dull roar. We mostly see visible light because that is what mostly the Sun delivers but the uv would probably be noisy and infrared would make everything blurry since it’s emitting from everything with a temperature. I’d be atune to hearing a audio range a magnitude higher and lower than we can now. That’d be annoying.

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      1. I just finally got hearing aids and I’m hearing things I haven’t heard in years. Just that is a bit overwhelming at times. Have you ever herd the cricket chirp slowed down? If that is what they hear at their speed it’s freakin amazing.

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        1. Just had to look that up. It’s pretty amazing slowed to 800%. Multiple harmonies and a floating chorus thing. No wonder I’m lullabied by crickets when camping. I’m sure than harmony is heard by them but it’s unlikely to be like what we experience or hear as they may be feeling it resonate in their body or something.

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  1. Thanks for a fascinating post !
    I recently attended an art demo by a successful artist,who said that for him painting was easy, but the importance of mixing colour and tones are vital. And that the focus of the light and its contrast, played the deciding factor in a good art piece. He also said …..”because everything we see around us is based on the primary colours”.
    So to add to the very fascinating subject of light and our seeing and perception of light – is the magnificence of the spectrum of colour.
    What a wonderful world we live in…(even if its not real (!) reality.

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    1. Great point! I do wonder if – say a physical chemist figured it all out theoretically – we accounted for every possible combination of atoms and molecules then would there be full saturation of the visible spectrum’s w wavelengths. That is, every length as every color covered. I assume quantum limits would occur but I guess I’m wondering how many colors are physically possible.

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  2. Great post once again!
    I am about to revisit a project of mine on biological responses to light. I am of the belief that seasonal light cycles have a significant effect on our mental well being. Current products on the market designed to address this only consist of a timed florescent light. I would like to take it a step further and consider the fluctuations in frequency distribution (changes in the color mixture) of daylight over the course of a day and over the seasons. Color changing LED technology could be used to simulate an optimal light cycle for a given user within their living space via home connected smart bulbs. I would like to hone in on determining whether sunrise and sunset have a physiological effect. As far as I know, the common belief is that simply adding hours of light of a fixed spectrum, sometimes a specific Kelvin color, will have a positive effect. But, with all these blue screens we stare at, maybe we are missing important physiological signals of the day beginning and ending?

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    1. That’s an interesting point. I have an old eye injury, and when I’m tired I see pixels, like a digital problem on the tv. Makes me think this entire gig is a hologram.

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      1. That’s interesting. When I was a kid I noticed translucent specs floating across my eye, which made me question the reality of perception. Also, I used to like to spin like a top. Afterward, everything moved for a while (probably because I’d done something to my inner ear). I found this intriguing.

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        1. I loved trying to look at those floaters and how it seemed I could never focus on them and they would, well, float around. Then realized those games of “stare at the sun” probably caused damage to my vitreous was damaged and clumped up, blocking some light from my retina (I was seeing their shadow). Lol. I joke about the sun, but not sure why I had them so young, maybe too many video games. I did have a period of time where when bored in class I would close my eyes and press on them pretty hard, making waves and spirals of colors fly around. That’s definitely not good to hold pressure on your eye frequently. Nonetheless, these were impetus for perceptual exploration and education.

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          1. Yeah I also remember reading some explanation for the floaters… but this was a really long time ago. Back in the days of newspapers. Another trick I used to like to do as a kid was generating after-images by looking out a bright window and then closing my eyes. I could see the distinct outline of the pine trees against the sky with my eyes closed!

            Do you think a gentle to moderate palming of the eyes would be harmful? It sure feels good on eyestrain.

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      2. I wonder if the injury is retinal or neural, or both? Either way it’s interesting the eye cells get spotty when your tired.
        As for the hologram, it pretty much is. Actually the hologram theory based on quantum entanglement is pretty interesting. But I like to think about the hologram world in terms of an alien simulation or virtual reality of some kind. But the shear fact we don’t see matter, just it’s photons makes this world a hologram right there.

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        1. It’s neural. My pupillary margin is paralyzed and it has no depth perception. As it slowly comes to focus is when I see the pixels. I mentioned in a post a while back about matter being 99.9% empty space. If that’s true we are mostly empty space. My theory is that .1% is probably consciousness guiding our genetic development and the spark for life, but that’s just me. I haven’t explored that in any real depth yet. So many mammalian embryo are basically the same, and quite possible the level or “grade” of consciousness directs the type of life form to develop. I need some time to work that out.

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    2. I kind of did in the sense we have a perceptual time lag. But that’s a great addition to add of all those photons coming toward our eye a limited amount are captured for processing causing a diminished resolution. Likewise the processing of images is quantized in a sense that their is micro-lags that would equate to a framerate. Thanks for pointing that out!

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      1. Yeah I remember reading something a long time ago about the eye needing to either replenish or remove cellular toxins before it can capture another set of photons. Not sure if this is (a) accurate and (b) if the process would happen sequentially or all at once.

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        1. I think it might relate to the article you recently posted about retinal and vitamin A; how it deforms the protein and vitamin A returns it to shape, or deoxidizes it or something. For (b) I’d guess it’d occurr molecularly rather than cellularly in scale.

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      2. For me my “ground” has shifted from this world to the spiritual world. It’s quite radical, really. Like an ontological pole shift. But having said that, everything must be kept in proper balance. If I ignore my daily duties for my contemplative prayer life, it’s like walking without taking notice of my feet. Easy to trip. Likewise, if I get caught up in this world and forget my spiritual life, I can feel weighed down and blah.

        As for uncertainty, yes accept it. Even embrace its possibilities. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Challenges make us grow! 🙂

        God grant me the serenity
        to accept the things I cannot change;
        courage to change the things I can;
        and wisdom to know the difference.

        ~ Serenity Prayer

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