Seeing what others see

Sorry for the rerun, but after listening to an episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, I decided that this topic needed to be revisited. This post originally appeared in March 2018. Enjoy!

I have a confession. I have deuteranopia. Before you worry about my mental state or my health, let me explain. Deuteranopia is the scientific term for red-green color blindness. While it’s not really a health issue, it does create some challenges for me as I select outfits in the morning or select paint colors for the house.

My children are fascinated by my color 6or9blindness. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not that I don’t see red or green at all. I just don’t see them the same as they do. I can’t distinguish between different reds and different greens and I see a lot of things other people would characterize as browns and greys. Despite my explanations, they still enjoy watching me fail every one of the color blindness exams. I can’t find that hidden number among the colored dots and they find it hilarious.

Despite my explanations, they can never really understand that I see things differently than they do. The real truth, however, is that we ALL see things differently from one another. While I have troubles seeing reds and greens, we also see shades of blue differently than each other. You may remember the huge Internet controversy of 2015. What was the color of the dress?  Was it black? What it blue? Was it white? As the conversation waged across social media, one thing was clear. We see things differently.

Our differences in sight aren’t limited to colors, however. It is also impacted by other factors, too. Take this story I heard about Google Maps. Say you wanted to find the Arunachal Pradesh region near India with Google Maps on your smartphone. Did you know that the way that region would be projected would differ based upon where you were doing the search? In China, the region’s borders would look slightly different than if you searched for it in India. Over the years, there have been some geographical disputes about the borders of different regions near India and Google is required to show those regions differently based on if the smartphone user is in India, in China or someplace else.  That’s right. Someone in another part of the world would actually see the region completely differently than both the Indian and Chinese users. While this is a pretty extreme case, the Google Maps example demonstrates that how we see is based on a lot of factors. It could be huge geopolitical or technological factors. Maybe it’s a physical factor, like my deuteranopia. It could also be due to our backgrounds and lived experiences. Each of these informs how we see.

I learned a great word this week on the Radiolab podcast. Umwelt. The Radiolab hosts were discussing the visual range of the rainbow shrimp and how, despite its amazing cones and rods, it could not distinguish between colors well. In explaining that we shouldn’t pity the poor rainbow shrimp, the one host, Rod Krulwich, chalked it up to “umwelt” and explained that we all experience it. “You are limited by what you can feel, touch, see, and know,” Krulwich said, because of who you are. That’s umwelt.

I’ve been thinking about this for a bunch of reasons this week.  Nature has a funny way of connecting dots across different media. I guess it started with thinking about last week’s post on Bias in Your Online Class? While I’ve been digging into the statistics for my online class and trying to better understand my biases, I’ve also been wondering how my students are experiencing the classes themselves. How are THEY seeing the learning environment? How are THEY seeing my interactions with them? Even if I explicitly asked them about their experiences, it would be hard for me to know how they saw something.

And that brings me back to the Radiolab podcast. At the end, the other host, Jad Abumrad, says that because of umwelt, we can never really see what other people see. We just see things differently. “That’s the lonely part,” Abumrad explains. “The unlonely part is you can try.”

Here’s to trying to see what others see

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