Later this evening I’ll be giving a talk to a group of astronomers on what its like to see like an alien. The beauty of this is that I can speculate until the cows come home without fear of any counterexamples being brought to my attention. And even if an alien were to be among the audience members and were to loudly object that he sees differently than I claim, I can always just say that the jury is out until we get more data, and then advise him not to let the door slam into his proboscis on the way out.
Although it may seem wild-eyed to discuss the eyes of aliens, if we understand why our vision is as it is, then we may be able to intelligently guess whether aliens will have vision like ours.
And in addition to the fun of chatting about whether little green men would see green, there are human implications. In particular, it can help us address the question, How peculiar is our human vision? Are we likely to see eye to eye with the typical alien invader? Or does our view of the world differ so profoundly that any alien visual mind would remain forever inscrutable?
Let’s walk through four cases of vision that I discuss in my book The Vision Revolution and ask if aliens are like us.
Do aliens see in color like us?
Let’s begin with color. I have argued in my research that our primate variety of color vision evolved in order to sense the skin color signals on the faces, rumps, and other naked spots of us primates. Not only are the naked primates the ones with color vision, but our color vision is at the sweet spot in design space allowing it to act like an oximeter and thereby see changes in the spectrum of blood in the skin as it oxygenates and deoxygenates.
Aliens may be interested in eating our brains, but they have no interest whatsoever in sensing the subtle spectral modulations of our blood under our skin. Aliens will not see color as we do, and will have no idea what we’re referring to when we refer to “little green men.”
This can take the wind out of many people, namely those who feel that their senses give them an objective view of the world around them. But evolution doesn’t care about objective views of the world per se. Evolution cares about useful views of the world, and although veridical perceptions do tend to be useful, little-white-lie perceptions can also be useful. We primates end up with colors painted all over the world we view, but our color vision (in particular the red-green dimension) is really only meaningful when on the bodies of others. Although we feel as if the objects in our world “really” have this or that color, no alien would carve the world at the color-joints we do.
Do aliens have forward-facing eyes?
How about our forward-facing eyes we’re so proud of? I have argued and presented evidence that forward-facing eyes evolved as an adaptation to see more of one’s surroundings when one is large and living in leafy habitats. Animals outside of leafy cluttered habitats are predicted to have sideways-facing eyes no matter their body size, but forest animals are predicted to have more forward-facing eyes as they get larger. That is, in fact, what I found.
So, would aliens have forward-facing eyes? It depends on how likely it is that they evolved in a forest-like habitat (with leaf-like occlusions) and were themselves large (with eye-separation as large or larger than the typical occlusion width). My first reaction would be to expect that such habitats would be rare. But, then again, if plant-like life can be expected anywhere, then perhaps there will always be some that grow upward, and want to catch the local starlight. If so, a tree-like structure would be as efficient a solution as it is for plants here on Earth. The short answer, then, is that it depends. But that means that forward-facing eyes are fundamentally less peculiar than our variety of color vision. Aliens could well have forward-facing eyes, but it would not appear to be a sure thing.
Do aliens suffer from illusions?
One of the more peculiar things our brain does to us is see illusions. I have provided evidence that these illusions are not some arcane mistake, but a solution to a problem any brain must contend with if it is in a body that moves forward. When light hits our eye, we would like our perception to occur immediately. But it can’t. Perception takes time to compute, namely about a tenth of a second. Although a tenth of a second may not sound like much, if you are walking at two meters per second, then you have moved 20 cm in that time, and anything perceived to be within 20 cm of passing you would have just passed you – or bumped into you – by the time you perceive it. To deal with this, our brains have evolved to generate a perception not of the world as it was when light hit the eye, but of how the world will be a tenth of a second later. That way, the constructed perception will be of the present. Although there is no room in this piece to describe the details, I have argued that a very large swathe of illusions occur because the visual system is carrying out such mechanisms.
Are aliens buying books of illusions and “ooh”ing and “ah”ing at them like we are? If they are moving forward (and have non-instantaneous brains), then they probably are buying these books. This is because the optic flow characteristics that underlie the explanation of the illusions are highly robust, holding in any environment where one moves forward. Aliens are, then, likely to suffer from illusions. The illusions we humans suffer from, then, may not be due to some arcane quirk or mistake in our visual system software, but, instead, a consequence of running the efficient software for dealing with neural delays.
Is alien writing shaped like ours?
I have provided evidence that our human, Earthly writing systems “look like nature,” in particular so that words have object-like structure. And I have shown that for writing like ours where letters stand for speech sounds, letters look like sub-objects, namely object junctions. Certain contour-combinations happen commonly in natural scenes, and certain combinations happen rarely. I have shown that the common ones in such environments are the common letters shapes found in human writing systems. Culture has selected writing to have the visual shapes our illiterate brains can see, which is why we’re such capable readers.
In this light, would alien writing look like nature as well? It depends on how specific one is when one says “like nature.” If, say, our human writing looks specifically like a savanna – i.e., if our writing mimicked signature visual features of the savanna – then it would appear very unlikely that aliens would have our kind of writing. But what if human writing looks like a very general notion of nature, so general it is likely to apply to most conceivable aliens? In my research I have provided evidence that the “nature” that appears relevant for understanding the shape of human writing is, indeed, highly general: namely, “3D environments with opaque objects strewn about.” Although highly general, aliens could float in a soup of cloudy transparent blobs, which is a kind of “nature” radically different than the one that human writing looks like. But it does seem plausible that most aliens will be roaming around opaque objects in 3D, and if that’s the case, then (so long as their culture has selected their writing to harness their visual object recognition system) their writing may look similar to human writing. Alien writing, if thrown into a pile of samples across our human writing, might just fit right in!
So let’s take stock.
Would aliens have our color vision? No. Definitely not. Ours is due to our peculiar hemoglobin.
Would aliens have forward-facing eyes? Maybe. If they evolved in leafy habitats and were large.
Would aliens see our illusions? Probably. If they move forward.
Would aliens have writing that looks like ours? Probably. If they live in a 3D world with opaque objects.
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