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Are our senses designed to fool us?

The senses
The senses

We humans depend heavily on our physical senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc) in order to get by in this physical world. Without the power afforded to us by our physical senses, we’d all probably be involved in too many accidents which result in serious life threatening injuries on far too regular a basis. Can you imagine life without the ability to see or hear anything? In ancient times, a person with neither the ability to see nor hear would have made easy lunch for the neighborhood sabertooth tiger or wolf. In modern times, a person who can neither see nor hear would in all likelihood be killed or seriously injured by some sort of moving vehicle if they ever ventured outside the home without another person to help them. Now that last point might be reduced in severity as we move into the future where most of our moving vehicles will get fitted with proximity sensors and automatic brakes, but for now, that is the reality.

Since we have to rely so heavily on our physical senses to get by in the physical world, one might imagine that the process of evolution would have refined our physical senses to near perfection over time. At first glance, this seems correct… For example, your eyes are probably accurately relaying information to your brain as they dart around this page while you’re trying to make sense of this article, and your ears are probably working correctly whenever you hear Adele belt out the chorus to her hit single “hello from the other side” from your car stereo. All that being said, there are some instances when our senses don’t quite accurately perceive reality… believe it or not.

After reading that last paragraph, you might be trying to pick out scenarios in your mind in which our physical senses play tricks on us… allow me to join in the fun and point a few out to you.

Scenario 1: The shape of our world
Without any prior knowledge of our solar system and the general shape of its planets, our everyday experiences would suggest that the world was generally a flat surface with some peaks and valleys depending on what part of the world you lived in. Nothing about our physical senses clues us into the fact that the world is actually an “oblate spheroid” (i.e. generally round).

Scenario 2: The genetic code
Without any prior knowledge of advanced biology or genetics, our everyday experiences would suggest that humans and trees are made up of different fundamental components. The truth however is that we humans in all our glory and the trees most of us see everyday share the same fundamental building blocks of the genetic code: Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C) , and Thymine (T).

Scenario 3: The revolution of the earth around the sun
If neither of us knew any better, the visible rise and fall of the sun each day would cause us to think that the earth remained stationary in space while the sun revolved around it. In addition, our powers of visual observation would cause each of us to think that the sun was much smaller than the earth. Years of study have of course proved beyond reasonable doubt that neither of the above are true.

We could go on and on with other example scenarios in which our physical senses effectively deceive us regarding the actual state of reality, but I think you get the general idea.

Assuming you agree that we can’t always completely rely on our physical senses to accurately explain the reality of our physical world, you might be wondering why this is the case. Why is it that even though evolution has had many millennia to refine our genetic makeup and fine tune our senses to near perfection, we still miss the real truth behind certain phenomena? I would’ve prefered a live conversation between you and I on this topic so that we could exchange ideas in real time, but since we are constrained by distance and time as I type this article in isolation, i’ll just share my own thoughts with you.

In my estimation, the reason why the process of evolution hasn’t eradicated all of us even though our physical senses are less than perfect is because the imperfection of our sensory perception forces us to develop brainpower. Think about it for a second… if you just understood everything as soon as you touched, saw, or heard it, you wouldn’t need to do much thinking. In a figurative sense, your brain and general intellectual faculties are like muscles… the more frequently and intensively you use them, the more powerful they will become (give or take a few nights with too much cannabis and/or alcohol!). Consider for a second the amount of mental effort and sheer willpower it took for Albert Einstein to discover the completely counter intuitive way gravity actually worked and to elaborately explain it with detailed yet elegantly simple mathematical equations. I’m pretty sure that the amount of mental effort he had to put forth over such a lengthy period of time sharpened his mental faculties. Yes… not all of us can be like Albert, but the same holds true for everyone on varying levels of intensity and scale. The more you use your head, the sharper, stronger, and more perceptive it will become provided you are smart enough to take regular breaks and avoid burnout.

So in a nutshell, it seems that nature in her supreme cleverness left us alone with our imperfect physical senses so that we could learn to think critically for ourselves, and in so doing, develop an intellect that is capable of piercing through to her most profound secrets and attaining mastery of the natural world. From all of us here at, please take care of yourselves and each other.

Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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2 thoughts on “Are our senses designed to fool us?

  1. There are a lot of things that our senses do not catch like we are actually moving around the circle of earth in one year in a speed of 66,000 miles per hour (107,000 km/hr)3. At this speed, you could get from San Francisco to Washington DC in 3 minutes. Wow !

    1. Yup… I agree. Thanks for adding the fun tidbit on the speed at which our earth circles the sun and grounding that by relating it to a trip from San Francisco to DC. Hope all is well my friend.

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