On mantis shrimp and user interfaces

In my last post, I learned a lot about eyes. One of the things I find really notable is that there are thousands of different kinds of eyes, and that each critter’s eyes are unique. It’s fascinating to me that a mantis shrimp sees something utterly, completely different from what I see.

So, I — you guessed it — did a little research.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a peacock mantis shrimp.

A peacock mantis shrimp strutting its stuff.
(Photo by Jens Petersen, via Wikimedia Commons)

You’re about 6 inches long, and you’re scuttling along the bottom of the ocean. You’re feeling a little peckish, so you start looking around for a snack. You spot a crab.1And then, you smash through the crab’s shell using your raptorial appendage, which accelerates like a .22-caliber bullet, causing the surrounding water to actually boil. NBD.

Okay, did you imagine that? And when you imagined it, I’m guessing you got at least a little bit of a visual on it, and you probably have a picture of a crab in your head right now.2If you don’t, imagining your last trip to Red Lobster will do just fine.

Now, here’s the thing. That picture of the crab that you have right now is really different from the picture that a mantis shrimp would have of the exact same crab. In fact, a lot of things about that crab are perceived differently by the mantis shrimp than they are by you and me. We think of crabs as having pretty tough shells (so much so that we’ve invented fancy crab-cracking tools to get at the tender, succulent meat inside), but a mantis shrimp just whacks a crab open with their raptorial appendage like you might tear a piece of lettuce. And don’t even get me started on their damned “noses.”

In short, the way a mantis shrimp perceives the world is very different from the way we do, or the way an ocelot would.

So here’s the million dollar question for you: Which one of us is right? What is the reality of the crab? Is it easy to eat or hard to eat? Is it big or is it little? Is it a dull red color, or is it a vibrant whatever-the-heck-mantis-shrimp-call-the-color-of-a-crab?

Donald D. Hoffman of the University of California does a lot of thinking and experimenting around this question of reality versus perception,3I first learned about Dr. Hoffman via David McRaney over at the You Are Not So Smart blog/podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. You can start with his interview with Dr. Hoffman — or, really, anywhere — and prepare to spend many hours catching up on the YANSS archives. and he has a mind-blowing take on it — in brief, that our perceptions (and the mantis shrimp’s, and the ocelot’s) don’t actually tell us much about reality at all. Rather, our perceptions tell us what we need to know in order for us to survive and reproduce.

This is a pretty big deal, although it might not be obvious at first. The mind-blowing thing here (for me, anyway) is that we have absolutely no idea how different reality is from our perception. It makes a certain amount of sense to me that my vision isn’t showing me what a mantis shrimp’s vision shows her, but I assume that we both see, well, a crab. Maybe she sees it as a different color, or through a different lens, but we both still see a real live thing.

Something like this.

Part of what Dr. Hoffman is proposing is that neither I nor the mantis shrimp has any f’in’ idea what a crab really is; instead, we perceive something that allows us to interact with a crab in an effective manner. Maybe a “crab” is really the toenail of a massive dog-like creature that we can’t comprehend the entirety of. Maybe a “crab” is really a hologram being projected forwards in time by the creatures we called “dinosaurs.” Maybe a “crab” is really a collection of nanobots that exist everywhere and everywhen in the universe, and we just see the few that form a crab-like shape at any given time. Or maybe a “crab” is really something I can’t even imagine.

His analogy for this is excellent — he likens our perception of reality to the user interface of a computer. My user interface might be like the screen of an iPad, and the mantis shrimp’s might be more like a punch card (or more likely, it’s the other way around). But neither of those interfaces is anything like the electrons and magnetic fields and relays that make a computer compute.

Let that sink in a bit, and imagine some of the ways in which reality might differ from our perceptions. Time. Distance. Causality. Mind blowing, right?

I’ll revisit this perception vs. reality question in a future4Well, my future. It might end up being your past, if you’re reading this after I’ve already written that next one. You get the idea. post. In the meantime, go watch Dr. Hoffman’s TED talk (maybe a couple times), and check out some of their other consciousness talks while you’re at it.

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think the nature of reality truly is!

‘Til next time,

–maia

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. And then, you smash through the crab’s shell using your raptorial appendage, which accelerates like a .22-caliber bullet, causing the surrounding water to actually boil. NBD.
2. If you don’t, imagining your last trip to Red Lobster will do just fine.
3. I first learned about Dr. Hoffman via David McRaney over at the You Are Not So Smart blog/podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. You can start with his interview with Dr. Hoffman — or, really, anywhere — and prepare to spend many hours catching up on the YANSS archives.
4. Well, my future. It might end up being your past, if you’re reading this after I’ve already written that next one. You get the idea.

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