Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dog is My Leader

As I was walking the dogs around the neighborhood yesterday morning, I remembered hearing a scientist talking to NPR about the way the human nervous system registers sensations. The scientist said that if he were to touch the reporter's nose and toe at exactly the same moment, the reporter's brain would receive the signals simultaneously—even though the signal from the toe takes longer to reach the brain than the signal from the nose. The brain, the scientist said, knows to delay the signal from the nose until the signal from the toe is almost to the brain. I don't remember how the brain knows to do this, but the point that the scientist and the reporter dwelled on was that everything we experience in the world—our perception of it—is slightly after the fact. Because of the tiniest of lags between the instant something happens and the moment our brains process it, we are constantly living in the past. 

So my question is, do our dogs live slightly ahead of us in time? Most dogs are smaller than humans, and the circuitry of their nervous systems is probably shorter than ours, too. Plus, they have their super senses—they can smell, hear, and (compared to me) see much better. I know that my dogs perceive things way before I do. Even Roma, who is mostly deaf and whose eyes are creamy with cataracts, knows to bark at a stranger passing our house—someone she can't hear or see but probably can smell. I always have to go to the door and say, "What are you barking . . . ? Oh." And Muzzy, who interprets my every gasp of surprise as "Get that squirrel!" bounds toward the back door before I even finish making the sound while watching movies in the living room. 

How much farther ahead in time and space are our dogs? What do they know and when do they know it? A second? A tenth of a second? A millisecond before we do? I guess I should just resign myself to the prospect of always being the last to know what's going on and instead bask in my state of obliviousness. Waiting a microsecond or two before discovering what stinky, gross thing the dogs are rolling in is, in its way, a moment of blissful ignorance.

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