Monday, April 19, 2010

The Senses: Technical Details

Last I checked human beings don't come with owner's manual, a support guide, or even a brochure on what the human body is capable of. We can't even surf to the vendor's website and track down the technical specs. We humans are ingenious creatures and some people have spent a lot of time reverse engineering the human body to understand how all works.

The details on how our senses work is covered in detail in the course The Physiology of the Senses: Transformations for Perception and Action by Tutis Vilis from the University of Western Ontario. It's billed as a brief and simple undergraduate level course but don't get scared away by that. The flash animated versions of each section are easy to get through even if many of the details escape you (as many escaped me) but the gist of how sensations get to the mind is easy to grasp. If textbooks were written more like these flash animations and pdfs I'd have had a much easier time in school. In places it is dense and technical but it isn't dry and full of small print.

Even if a university level course on the details of the senses isn't your idea of how spend a few hours don't pass this site by. Each course section also has a short page of links. There is so much to explore that is much less technical. There are links to TED videos, to an article on how the brain processes jokes, and even to a NeuroReport paper on Why can't you tickle yourself? (pdf). Make sure you have some time on your hands before you head to the links pages.

There are other overviews of the senses that are less detailed but just as interesting. Seeing, Hearing and Smelling the World is a report from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Less technical it doesn't get into the minutiae of the senses. Instead it works at a higher level. Mixing some details with descriptions of how three of the senses work, explanations of the research that's been done, and descriptions of areas where more research is required.

What I haven't found in one place recently is the technical specs for human beings. Years ago Stan Kelly-Bootle (the first person to receive a postgraduate diploma on computer science back in 1954) wrote a monthly column for a magazine aimed at computer programmers. I can't recall if the magazine was Software Development or Computer Programmer, or another that came before those two.

At one point he wrote a series of columns about how humans and computers could interact. He didn't talk about windows or mice or anything technical on the computer side of the things. Instead he focused on the limitations of our senses. Limitations such as:
  • How much detail can we see right in front of us compared to our peripheral vision? 
  • How many colours can we perceive? 
  • How many images need to flicker in front of our eyes before we see seamless motion? 
  • What range of sound can we hear? 
  • How much information can we make out in an sound?
  • How many words can we read in a second?
It was a fascinating summary of the limits of our ability to sense and understand information. It turns out there are known limits to how much information we can take in. Also there is only so much we can do to transfer information from within our minds into a computer. At a certain point we can't interact any faster and the only choice we have is to be more efficient.

We may not have the complete tech specs for the human senses provided for us but we do have several good after market maintenance manuals. Dr. Vilis' animations are a good place to start.

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