On empathy and the color red.

On empathy and the color red.

I can’t fly.

I try to feed my children every night, but I never vomit blood into their mouths.

When I try to hang upside down – like from monkey bars at a playground – I have to clench my muscles, and pretty soon I get dizzy. I couldn’t spend a whole day like that.

And, yes, sometimes I shout. Too often during the pandemic, I’ve shouted at my kids. But when I shout, I’m trying to make them stop hitting each other – I’m not trying to figure out where they are.

It’s pretty clear that I’m not a bat.

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Photograph by Anne Brooke, USFWS

Because I haven’t had these experiences, philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue that I can’t know how it feels to be a bat.

In so far as I can imagine [flitting through the dark, catching moths in my mouth], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.

But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

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Perhaps I can’t know what it feels like for a bat to be a bat. And yet, I can empathize with a bat. I can imagine how it might feel to be trapped in a small room while a gamboling, wiry-limbed orc-thing tried to swat me with a broom.

It would be terrifying!

And that act of imagination – of empathy – is enough for me to want to protect bats’ habitats. To make space for them in our world. Sure, you could argue that bats are helpful for us – they’re pollinators, they eat pesky bugs – but empathy lets us care about the well-being of bats for their own sake.

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Literature exercises our minds: when we read, invent, and share stories, we build our capacity for empathy, becoming more generally aware of the world outside our own skulls.

Writing can be a radical act of love. Especially when we write from a perspective that differs from our own. The poet Ai said that “Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.” Her poems often unfurl from the perspective of violent men, and yet she treats her protagonists with respect and kindness. Ai gives them more than they deserve: “I don’t know if I embrace them, but I love them.

Ai

That capacity for love, for empathy, will let us save the world. Although many of us haven’t personally experienced a lifetime of racist microaggressions or conflict with systemic oppression, we all need to understand how rotten it would feel. We need to understand that the pervasive stress seeps into a person’s bones, causing all manner of health problems. We need understand the urgency of building a world where all children feel safe.

And if we don’t understand – yet – maybe we need to read more.

Experiments suggest that reading any engaging literary fiction boosts our ability to empathize with others. Practice makes better: get outside your head for a while, it’ll be easier to do it again next time.

Of course, we’ll still need to make an effort to learn what others are going through. Thomas Nagel was able to ruminate so extensively about what it would feel like to live as a bat because we’ve learned about echolocation, about their feeding habits, about their family lives. If we want to be effective anti-racists, we need to learn about Black experiences in addition to developing our empathy more generally.

Luckily, there’s great literature with protagonists facing these struggles – maybe you could try How We Fight for Our Lives, Americanah, or The Sellout.

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As a bookish White person, it’s easy for me to empathize with the experiences of other bookish White people. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t tax my brain. Nor does White Noise. The characters in these books are a lot like me.

The cognitive distance between me and the protagonists of Americanah is bigger. Which is sad in and of itself – as high schoolers, these characters were playful, bookish, and trusting, no different from my friends or me. But then they were forced to endure hard times that I was sufficiently privileged to avoid. And so when I read about their lives, perched as I was atop my mountain of privilege, it was painful to watch Ifemelu and Obinze develop their self-protective emotional carapaces, armoring themselves against the injustice that ceaselessly buffets them.

Another reader might nod and think, I’ve been there. I had to exercise my imagination.

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In Being a Beast, Charles Foster describes his attempts to understand the lives of other animals. He spent time mimicking their behaviors – crawling naked across the dirt, eating worms, sleeping in an earthen burrow. He wanted a badger’s-eye view of the world.

Foster concluded that his project was a failure – other animals’ lives are just so different from ours.

And yet, as a direct consequence of his attempt at understanding, Foster changed his life. He began treating other animals with more kindness and respect. To me, this makes his project a success.

White people might never understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America. I’m sure I don’t. But we can all change the way we live. We can, for instance, resolve to spend more money on Black communities, and spend it on more services than just policing.

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Empathy is working when it forces us to act. After all, what we do matters more than what we purport to think.

It’s interesting to speculate what it would feel like to share another’s thoughts – in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the protagonists find a way to temporarily join minds. This overwhelming rush of empathy and love transforms them: “Every human being should feel obliged to try this once.

In the real world, we might never know exactly how the world feels to someone else. But Nagel wants to prove, with words, that he has understood another’s experience.

One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision.

The loose intermodal analogies – for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet” – which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red.

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We associate red with many of our strongest emotions: anger, violence, love.

And we could tell many different “just so” stories to explain why we have these associations.

Like:

Red is an angry color because people’s faces flush red when they’re mad. Red blood flows when we’re hurt, or when we hurt another.

Or:

Red represents love because a red glow spreads over our partners’ necks and chests and earlobes as we kiss and caress and fumble together.

Or:

Red is mysterious because a red hue fills the sky at dawn and dusk, the liminal hours when we are closest to the spirit world.

These are all emergent associations – they’re unrelated to the original evolutionary incentive that let us see red. Each contributes to how we see red now, but none explains the underlying why.

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We humans are blue-green-red trichromatic – we can distinguish thousands of colors, but our brains do this by comparing the relative intensities of just three.

And we use the phrase “color blind” to describe the people and other animals who can’t distinguish red from green. But all humans are color blind – there are colors we can’t see. To us, a warm body looks identical to a cold wax replica. But their colors are different, as any bullfrog could tell you.

Photograph by Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images

Our eyes lack the receptors – cone cells with a particular fold of opsin – that could distinguish infrared light from other wavelengths. We mistakenly assume these two singers have the same color skin.

When we look at flowers, we often fail to see the beautiful patterns that decorate their petals. These decorations are obvious to any bee, but we’re oblivious. Again, we’re missing the type of cone cells that would let us see. To fully appreciate flowers, we’d need receptors that distinguish ultraviolet light from blue.

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Most humans can see the color red because we’re descended from fruit eaters. To our bellies, a red berry is very different from a green berry. And so, over many generations, our ancestors who could see the difference were able to gather more nutritious berries than their neighbors. Because they had genes that let them see red, they were better able to survive, have children, and keep their children fed.

The genes for seeing red spread.

Now, several hundred thousand years later, this wavelength of light blares at us like a trumpet. Even though the our ancestors learned to cook food with fire, and switched from fruit gathering to hunting, and then built big grocery stores where the bright flashes of color are just advertisements for a new type of high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored cereal, red still blares at us.

Once upon a time, we really needed to see ripe fruit. The color red became striking to us, wherever we saw it. And so we invented new associations – rage, or love – even though these are totally unrelated to the evolutionary pressures that gave us our red vision.

Similarly, empathy wasn’t “supposed” to let us build a better world. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness.

And yet. Even though I might never know exactly how it feels when you see the color red, I can still care how you’re treated. Maybe that’s enough.

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Header image: a greater short-nosed fruit bat, photograph by Anton 17.

On attempts to see the world through other eyes.

On attempts to see the world through other eyes.

flowers

Most writers spend a lot of time thinking about how others see the world.  Hopefully most non-writers spend time thinking about this too.  It’s easier to feel empathy for the plights of others if you imagine seeing through their eyes.

So I thought it was pretty cool that the New York Times published an article about processing images to represent how they might appear to other species.

The algorithm shifts the color distribution of images to highlight which objects appear most distinct for an animal with different photoreceptors.  I thought it was cool even though the processing they describe fails in many ways to convey how differently various animals perceive the world.

For one thing, image processing can only affect visuals.  Another species may rely more on sound, scent, taste (although perhaps it’s cheating to list both scent and taste — they are essentially the same sense, chemodetection, with the difference being that humans respond more sensitively, and to a wider variety of chemicals, with our noses than our tongues), touch, sensing magnetic fields, etc.

If we assume that other animals will also place maximal trust in the detection of inbound electromagnetic radiation from the narrow band we’ve deemed “the visual spectrum,” we can fool ourselves regarding their most likely interpretations.  For an example, you could read my previous post about why rattlesnakes might assume that humans employ chameleon-like camouflage (underlying idea courtesy of Jesus Rivas & Gordon Burghardt).

The second problem with assuming that an image with shifted colors represents how another animal would view the world is on the level of neurological processing.  When a neurotypical human looks at an image and something resembles a face, that portion of the image will immediately dominate the viewer’s attention; a huge amount of human brainpower is devoted to processing faces.  Similarly, some dogs, if another dog enters their visual field, have trouble seeing anything else.  And bees: yes, they see more blues & ultraviolets than we do, but it’s also likely that flowers dominate their attention. I imagine it’s something like the image below, taken with N and her Uncle Max on a recent walk. Although, depending on your personality, you might have some dog-style neurological processing, too.

unnamed

Even amongst humans this type of perceptual difference exists.  A friend of mine who does construction (ranked the second-best apprentice pipefitter in the nation the year he finished his training, despite being out at a buddy’s bachelor party, i.e. not sleeping, all night before the competition), when he walks into a room, immediately notices all exposed ductwork, piping, etc.  Most people care so little about these features as to render them effectively invisible.  And I, after three weeks of frantic itching and a full course of methylprednisolone, could glance at any landscape in northern California and immediately point out all the poison oak.  My daughter can spot a picture or statue of an owl from disconcertingly far away and won’t stop yelling “owww woo!” until I see it too.

The color processing written up in the New York Times, though, was automated.  Given the current state of computerized image recognition, you probably can’t write a script that would magnify dogs or flowers or poison oak effectively.  Maybe in a few years.

There’s one last big problem, though.  And the last problem is about the colors alone.  There is simply no way to re-color images so that a dichromatic (colloquially, “colorblind”) human would see the world like a trichromat.

(A brief aside: Shortly after I wrote the above sentence, I read an article about glasses marketed to colorblind people to let them see color.  And the basic idea is clever, but I don’t think it invalidates my claim.

glasses

Here’s how it works: most colorblind people are dichromats, meaning they have two different flavors of color receptors.  Colored light stimulates these receptors differentially: green light stimulates green receptors a lot and blue receptors a little.  Blue light stimulates blue receptors a lot and green receptors a little.  The brain processes the ratio of receptor stimulation to say, “Ah ha!  That object is blue!”

A typical human, however, is a trichromat.  This means that the brain uses three datapoints to determine an object’s color instead of two.  The red and green receptors absorb maximally near the same part of the spectrum, though… the red vs. blue & green vs. blue ratios are generally very similar.  So the third receptor type mostly helps a trichromat distinguish between red and green.

This means a dichromat will have a narrower range of the electromagnetic spectrum that they are good at distinguishing color within.  For a dichromat, reds and greens both will be characterized by “green receptor stimulated a lot, blue receptor only a little.”

Now, if you imagine that the visual spectrum is number line that runs from 0 to 100, a dichromat would be good at distinguishing colors in the first 0 to 50 segment, and not good at distinguishing color beyond that point — everything with green wavelength, ca. 500 nanometers, and longer, would appear to be green.

But you could take that 0 to 100 number line and just divide everything by 2.  Then every color would look “wrong” — no object would appear to be the same color as it was before you put on the wacky glasses — and you’d be less able to distinguish between close shades — if two colors needed to be 15 nanometers apart to seem different, now they’d need to be 30 nanometers apart — but a dichromat could distinguish between colors over the same full visual spectrum as trichromats.

That’s roughly how the glasses should work — inbound light is shifted such that all colors are made blue & greenish, and the visual spectrum is condensed).

Of course, even though you can’t change an image in a way that will allow you (I’m assuming that you, dear reader, are a trichromat.  But my assumption has a 10% chance of being wrong.  My apologies!  I care about you, too, dichromatic reader!) and a dichromatic friend to see it the same way.  But you can change your friend.  You can inject a DNA-delivering retrovirus into your friend’s eyeball, and after a short neurological training period, you and your friend will see colors the same way!

Only in the eyeball!
Only in the eyeball!

It’s possible that your friend won’t like you any more if you do this.  But here’s how it works: the retrovirus encodes for the flavor of photoreceptor that none of your friend’s cone cells were expressing.  Upon infection, the virus will initiate production of that receptor… so now a subpopulation of cone cells will be sending new signals to the brain.  They’ll be stimulated by different wavelengths of light than they were before.  And brains, magically plastic things that they are, rapidly rewire themselves to incorporate any new data they have access to.

(If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you should look up biohacking.  Like implanting magnets in your fingers to “feel” electric or magnetic fields.  But I’m not going to link to anything.  Wrestling your friend to the ground in order to inject recombinant DNA into his eyeball?  That makes me smile.  But slicing open your own fingertips to put magnets under the skin?  That’s too creepy for me).

If a brain is suddenly receiving different signals after exposure to red versus green light, it’ll use that information.  Which means: Color vision achieved!  Unfortunately, viral DNA integrates randomly, so a weird eye cancer might’ve been achieved as well.  You win some, you lose some.

What we call “color vision,” though, is still only trichromatic.  With three flavors of cone cells, humans can do a pretty good job distinguishing colors from about 400 to 700 nanometers.  But some species have more flavors of cone cells, which means they can distinguish the world’s colors more precisely.  Even some humans are tetrachromats, although their fourth cone cell flavor is maximally stimulated by light midway between red and green, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that trichromatic humans are already good at parsing.  And tetrachromatic humans are rare: to the best of my knowledge no languages have a word for that secret color between red and green.  I don’t know any words for it, at least, but maybe this too is a secret guarded by those who see it.

Still, no amount of image processing would allow you, dear reader, even if you’re one of those rare tetrachromatic individuals, to see the world in all the spangled glory seen by a starling or a peacock.  This graph shows the stimulation of each flavor of cone cell receptor by different wavelengths of light.

bird eyes

And even the splendorous beauty seen by birds pales in comparison to the way we thought mantis shrimps perceive the world.  Because mantis shrimps, see, have twelve flavors of photoreceptors, which means that if their brains processed colors the same ways ours do, by considering the ratio of cone cell flavors that are stimulated by incident light, they’d be exquisitely sensitive to color.  Here: compare the spectral sensitivity graph for humans and starlings, shown above, to the equivalent graph for mantis shrimps.  This makes humans look pathetic!

mantis shrimp spectral sensitivity

If you haven’t see it, you should definitely read this cartoon about mantis shrimp perception from The Oatmeal.

oatmealIt’s possible that mantis shrimps process color differently from humans, though.  Instead of computing ratios of cone-flavor activation to determine the color of an object, they might decide that an object is the color of whatever single cone flavor is most stimulated.  In other words, while humans use stimulation ratios from our mere three flavors of cone cells to identify thousands of hues, a species with a dozen photoreceptor flavors might regard every object as being one of those dozen discrete colors.

Indeed, that’s what a recent study from Thoen et al. (“A Different Form of Color Vision in Mantis Shrimp”) suggests.  They trained mantis shrimps to attack a particular color of light in order to win a treat, then tested how well it could distinguish that color from nearby wavelengths.  In their hands, the shrimps needed approximately 50 nanometers separating two colors to distinguish them, whereas humans, with our meager three flavors of photoreceptors, can often distinguish colors as close as 1 or 2 nanometers apart.

Still, it’s hard to know exactly what a shrimp is thinking.  Testing human cognition and perception is easier because we can, you know, talk to each other.  Describe what we see.

With humans, the biggest barrier to empathy is that sometimes we forget to listen.