At the American Museum of Natural History’s Senses exhibit in New York, there is a room that is completely wallpapered in squiggly black lines, including the floor and ceiling. It’s otherwise a normal room: six sides, two doors. One door is an entrance that warns visitors of potential dizziness, which I scoff at. Me, dizzy? In a room? Pssh. I stepped in without a second thought.
On that cold January afternoon, the squiggly room owned me. As soon as I entered, the squiggly black lines came to life, snaking and pulsing and making me trip. I’m clumsy, sure, but this was a flat room. The lines weren’t uniform, and depending on how they were spaced, some “moved” more than others. Intellectually, I knew the room wasn’t moving. But something deep within me disagreed viciously, and I stumbled out of the room before I threw up.
Robert DeSalle, a genomics expert who curated the exhibit and wrote Our Senses: An Immersive Experience, said that my overconfidence entering the room of squiggly lines was indicative of the fact that we humans are way too confident about the superiority of our senses.
“Our neural range of processing, compared to animals, is not really good,” DeSalle said. Translation: Our senses and how we perceive our space sucks.
DeSalle is a mild-mannered scientist with a dim office in the bowels of the AMNH, near some fluorescent-lit labs and a hallway looking into a courtyard. He’s thought long and hard about the future of our senses, and told me that our very sense of who we are will change in the future.
What won’t, however, is the innate trust we place in the strength of our senses, when nature abounds in examples of those that are sensorially superior to us. An example is the trichoplax, a sandwich of three floating sheets, about a thousand cells, with no nervous system or brain. But DeSalle says these simple placozoans—what a study once called “the simplest free-living animals”—are superior to our complex systems in how they react and use their senses. “It reacts to light, it reacts to gravity, it reacts to all kinds of things, and it retains all its genes for constructing the brain but doesn’t have one,” he said. The trichoplax’s sensory capabilities without a brain are remarkable. Another example of a seemingly simple animal with amplified sensing power are platypuses, whose bills can sense electric currents and the action potential emanating from organisms to distinguish prey from food.
Humans, though? “Compared to other organisms… well, we’re probably not that good at anything,” DeSalle said with a laugh. That’s not to necessarily say that human senses suck so much as that human senses have evolved to meet our unique needs. Our eyes, for example, are such that bees’ eyes look like machines, with their ability to sense various infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. Our hearing is limited to sounds that are in a restricted range; star-nosed moles use tiny tentacles on their snouts, feeling prey with a few hundred touches in 20 milliseconds. Our sense of balance is—as my foray into the squiggly room showcased—not that great.
Our senses are awful—but that’s OK. “We work, and we work really well,” DeSalle said, pointing to the fact that we’ve become the dominant species on the planet despite our terribly engineered senses.
In a time when our environment is changing more rapidly than ever before—the inclusion of technology, potential for humans to travel to different planets, climate change—our senses are going to undergo a change to keep up with our environment’s transformation.
It’s already happening, in fact.
“There’s a lot of neat evidence out there on our hearing and the modern world’s impact on our hearing,” he said. “We’re hearing sounds that our ancestors would never have thought would have existed.” Think of the rumble of jets, the squeal of cars, the pounding of rock concerts, the wail of sirens—“it’s a real taxation on our hearing… in an evolutionary sense, we could have a diminishing of this sense.”
DeSalle pushed it a bit further: Would our senses disappear altogether, maybe even becoming vestigial (akin to what our appendix’s structure and function is like)? Look to sloths, DeSalle suggested: They move slowly (if at all) and live in trees, rarely coming down from their perch. “They’ve lost any need for balance,” DeSalle explained. Research into sloth vestibular systems—the semi-circular canals that make up our balance systems and those of most mammals—shows they are bent, look abnormal, and don’t look the same. “If you looked at 10 humans, you couldn’t tell them [the vestibular systems] apart,” DeSalle said.
An altered balance system in our ears that looks sloth-like could occur if we venture outside Earth and have an extraplanetary existence. “Gravitation plays a big role [in how our senses work],” DeSalle said. “What your senses are about is taking all the junk in the immediate environment around you and processing it.”
But our evolution has been used to detect these sensory cues in our Earthly environment since the beginning of our evolution, and our bodies aren’t sure what to do when they’re thrown into an alternative environment. A human on Mars, for example, weighs 38 percent of what they would weigh on Earth (a 150-pound human comes in at 57 pounds on Mars). “Our vestibular system, our balance system, is fine-tuned to what we have on this planet,” DeSalle said. Are we going to become sloth-like a few generations into Mars colonization? Maybe.
That’s not the only thing that will fundamentally change how we live on Mars. In a twisted way, landing on the Red Planet will shock our systems into reliving what our ancestors must have experienced. “There’s less light on Mars, so our visual system is going to be impacted,” he said. “We won’t hear natural sounds, because we won’t have the atmosphere for sound waves to go through. Our sensory system will be confounded by a trip to Mars.” A space suit might keep humans in “Earth stasis,” but that might change as humans establish themselves on the planet.
There’s actually a way for us to preview here on Earth how “confounded” our bodies might be in the future, through virtual reality.
Our senses are contextualized by our brain, and when the brain isn’t sure how to interpret signals from our sensory cues, it throws our body and comprehension of these signals out of whack. A simple, 2D version of this occurred when I entered the seemingly moving room at the AMNH: My sensory cues told me the room was moving, but I also didn’t feel the movement, and knew the room wasn’t moving. With virtual reality, that feeling and knowing division is complicated by the fact that you feel things you might think you know you feel, but don’t. That’s an inelegant way to say that what you’re feeling is actually not at all true. “Your brain is trying to make sense of it [virtual reality],” he said. “Your brain has to recalibrate and rethink all of this stuff.”
In this way, virtual reality is actually indicative of how the future of our senses might be promising, precisely because of our brains. The fact that we’re able to take something in virtual reality, regardless of how complicated and weird it might be, and understand that an object should be round, or that we should step over an obstacle—that’s amazing, DeSalle pointed out, and speaks to the fact that our brains are uniquely powerful and capable in this respect. “There’s a lot of people who argue that our brains are pre-adapted to VR,” DeSalle said. “That’s because we can do these calculations on the run and figure them out really fast and then interpret the experience the way it should be interpreted.”
DeSalle isn’t the only person thinking about the future of our senses and how they define the human experience. Michael Graziano has spent his career researching personal space and peripersonal neurons, the cells that monitor the space around your body; he’s the author of The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. Personal space and how it interacts with our senses has been an integral part of being human over our evolution: Being able to sense minute changes to when a person is encroaching this sensitive area offers social and physical safety, sending signals about whether a person has been delegated to being a stranger, acquaintance, or lover.
Classically, we’ve thought about personal space as being cultural. Graziano said that mistaken notion is traceable to a racist diatribe by Edward Hall in his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension which suggested nonwhite cultures are more touchy-feely and don’t have a sense of personal space compared to Western European ones that seem to have an innate space bubble.
Graziano said that the science strongly disproved this. “We see it in people and animals,” he told The Daily Beast. “But Hall devoted a huge chunk of his book to cultural differences and frankly, it’s cringe-inducing and racist. I’m sure culture shapes human behavior like our sense of comfort of people crowding around you. If you live in a crowded society, you’re used to having people around you.” But urban living is not the same as one group of people having a fundamentally different definition of personal space compared to another.
Rather, Graziano’s extensive research on macaques and humans suggest personal space is universal. We all walk around with a cutout a little larger than our actual body. And while we might initially assume that the cutout is protecting us from foreign invaders who break the bubble’s barrier and inform our system that something is wrong, it doubles as a warning to others, a deflection: Don’t go beyond this point, or else.
DeSalle and Graziano both agree that technology is—and will continue—to affect humans. “We’re doing a giant experiment on ourselves,” Graziano said. “People become unmoored socially in cyberspace, where there is no such thing as personal space. The troll phenomenon—it’s a weird cyberspace phenomenon. In real life, if you said something [terrible], you’d get your teeth knocked out.”
But breaking the personal space barrier and being able to talk shit to a person means that personal space is also getting confused: You can suddenly insult someone in the luxury of your parent’s basement, and the victim’s personal space is violated—but not. Graziano said that means we’re challenging our inborn social competence and what it means to be anti-social. “This takes away the social scaffold and messes up people’s social development,” Graziano said.
That’s also because we’re not interacting with humans as much any more, at least not physically. Graziano points to nonverbal cues that we use to communicate with others: extending or shrinking the neck to express nervousness or openness, respectively, or crossing legs and arms to take a defensive posture. “These subtle gestures, they stem from a need to protect the self,” Graziano said. “It allows us to really carefully measure people’s behavior when we talk to each other.” Tweeting, Gchatting, texting, and other forms of nonverbal, nonphysical communication have reduced our opportunities to read behavioral cues, which in turn not only affects how we interact with each other, but also changes our sense of perception.
So will (some of) our senses die? Not at all, Graziano and DeSalle independently say. “As long as we have physical bodies, we will have personal space,” Graziano said assuredly, “so we can walk around without crashing into things and wrap our personal space around tools. We still need it to organize ourselves socially, but it’s gotten deranged in cyberspace.” DeSalle added that our senses aren’t going anywhere, so much as they’re going to change, and that in the end, our brain and how it processes these senses are what will enable us to survive as a species.
“But what happens when our sense of space doesn’t work right?” Graziano asked rhetorically. He didn’t have an answer, and neither did DeSalle. For me in the seemingly moving room within the AMNH, all I had to do to regain a sense of my human self again was toddle over to a door, step out of the room, and stare at “normal” walls until I didn’t feel as discombobulated. For generations in the future? Who knows.