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Life Lines: Feeling Seen

September 15, 2023

Alex Spear

“I like that we’re on the same wavelength,” I tell my friend over dinner. Our eyes meet and the corners of his mouth curl up. We are pondering the good life and personal needs. The concepts are abstract, and the phrases my friend strings together are fragmented. He’s spent all his full sentences on final papers. Ya know’s & hand gestures fill the intervening space as he reaches for meaning. Somehow, I understand it all.

When I reply, my words are unclear, but I read in his face that he is with me. “I see,” he says. I feel good.

Being seen or feeling understood has a significant effect on a person’s psyche, but too often, the experience of being seen is dismissed as passive and unimportant. When you see a chair, or when you see me, you are experiencing the seeing. So am I only an object of your experience, like the chair? Or does my experience of being seen matter too?

Being seen matters—to us and to mantis shrimp. In his book, “An Immense World,” Ed Yong invites his readers to consider the importance of being seen through the eyes of a mantis shrimp. Here, I invite you.

Our vision is limited. We can see a light’s intensity and its color, but we cannot see its polarization. As ‘ya know,’ light travels in waves. Some light waves that come into our eyes wiggle side to side, like a snake. Others rise and fall vertically, like the waves that crash on the beach. Still, other light oscillates diagonally. Most of the light around us contains all these directions mixed together like the drum of conversations in a noisy cafeteria. But in special cases, a melodious chorus of polarized light is created: when many waves all sway back and forth in the same direction (though not at the same time). Smooth surfaces can create polarized light. Mantis shrimp can do even better. Off of their tails, these creatures reflect circularly polarized light: coordinated waves spinning around in helices like single strands of DNA.

Why would these tiny crustaceans reflect circularly polarized (CP) light? How did they  pick up such a highly specialized skill? Biologist Thomas Cronin’s theory is that mantis shrimp evolved the ability to craft CP light because they had the ability to see it. At some point, the mantis shrimp’s photoreceptors, cells that sense light, gained the ability to perceive CP light. Since other mantis shrimp are able to perceive this light, one mantis shrimp could attract or warn another by reflecting twisting helices of light. That shrimp’s ability to reflect CP light only mattered because other shrimp could see it. Evolution then selected for those shrimp with the ability to reflect CP light. Being seen affected the evolution of these mantis shrimp, and being seen affects us too.

Since my dinner with that friend, the specifics of our conversation have escaped me. I no longer recall the revelations we grasped together, but I remember the feeling of being seen. I remember that after dinner, instead of feeling exhausted from the week behind me, I was excited for possibilities ahead. Instead of crashing into my bed, I began to write! Studies show that people who felt understood in daily social interactions were happier than those who felt misunderstood. Students’ brains light up in reward-signaling regions when neurologists make them think their emotional states and stories are understood by others.

I sit down to lunch with another friend. She asks why I changed my major. Do I tell her the confused tangle of reasons that keeps me up at night? Or do I choose one reason that makes sense, that is relatable and that she’ll understand? I just tell her that I enjoy classes more in the new major. She gets it. I feel good.


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