When it comes to our ability to take in information, we humans share a bunch of limitations. Our common genetic inheritance allows our eyes to see only in certain types of light, restricts our ears to hearing only certain sorts of sound, and establishes the relative sensitivity of our skin. Sure, each of these sensory capacities can be enhanced with training–and all can be amplified (or diminished) with specialized tools. But no amount of practice will make your naked eyes see in infrared, or your ears hear a dog whistle, or your skin feel the colonies of bacteria that currently teem all over it (don’t worry, this is mostly a good thing). Your capacity to perceive the world around you–not to mention on and in you–is limited by the design and functioning of the organs through which you perceive. And so is mine.
And it’s a good thing, too. After all, these limitations to our ability to witness the world’s full complexity aren’t design flaws; they aren’t “bugs” in the software designer’s sense. Just the opposite: they’re features–attributes of systems long-since designed to pick out the information that’s most likely relevant from the blooming buzzing confusion that would otherwise overwhelm us. Our ears enable us not only to hear, but to hear the sorts of things we need to hear: the cries of a child, the voice of a friend, the approach of a predator, the marvelous mathematical proportionality of music. And this is just another way of saying that our ears are designed to ignore vast amounts of otherwise audible information that we typically don’t need.
Natural selection has long since tuned us up in certain ways. And our cultures and languages have subsequently turned our dials further–sharpening our listening skills if also, thereby, limiting them even more. Personal experience has had its say, too, ultimately forming each of us into a uniquely tuned respondent, a selectively sensitive agent primed to overreact to some sounds, respond productively to others, and ignore most of what drifts into our ears.
So it is with each of our sensory organs. While you and I have a great deal in common, my eyes see differently, my skin feels differently, my nose sniffs differently from yours. Each of us is a particular case of sensitivity. And each of us, therefore, is a unique window onto the rest of the world.
If you ever need a reason to listen to someone, there it is. They see a different slice of the world than you see, even when you’re looking the same direction. They hear a different symphony, even if you tap your feet to the same beat. They thus have something unique to teach you–and you to them–if only you’re both patient enough to find it.
In the end, you have enough in common to communicate. And you’re both blind enough to need to listen. Try to remember this when you’re talking to me, or your mother, or each other, or anyone else for that matter. I promise I’ll try to do the same.
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