Colored numbers, tasteable shapes

I’ve been posting thoughts about qualia, the qualities of sensuous experience. One way to reflect upon qualia is by considering synesthesia, a remarkable syndrome in which a perception that typically occurs through one sensory system (such as hearing) can also be represented in another (such as sight). For instance, some people both hear and “see” sounds. They experience the same auditory inputs with two different types of qualia. “Some synesthetes hear what they see, others see what they hear. One of them felt tastes with his hands. The taste of mint, for instance, felt to his hands as smooth, cool columns of glass. Every taste had its systematically associated feel, and he found this quite useful as an aid to creative cooking.”*

Synthesthetes sometimes see strange colors that they only perceive in association with numbers. How I wish I could see those atypical colors!

Let’s play with the concept of synesthesia by using a thought experiment. Thought experiments are imaginary and often bizarre scenarios that are intended to shed light on philosophical problems. Sometimes these scenarios invoke the concept of God as a metaphorical way of erasing practical difficulties which are irrelevant to the basic idea behind the experiment.

Suppose an all-powerful being altered our bodies so that we started detecting pain as tastes. Instead of feeling a stabbing sensation, a person who stepped on a tack might notice a terribly bitter taste in the bottom of her foot. This taste would represent the damage done by the tack. If something like this is possible, then perhaps when we notice the distinction between tactile and taste sensations, we are noticing something which goes beyond detecting the features of bodily states – something about the mental states that represent these body-states. This would support the internalist claim that we experience states of our own minds rather than just states of the outside world.

To all my readers, may your holiday season be memorable and fulfilling.

Roger Christan Schriner

* Davies, T. N. et al. (2002) “Visual Worlds: Construction or Reconstruction?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 9, No. 5-6, p. 75.


Your own little Truman Show

“Reality … what a concept!” This title of a CD by the late Robin Williams suggests that what we think of as reality is our own conceptualization, and I believe that the brain assembles the only reality we are able to know. Every message we receive through our ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and skin is elaborately processed before we become aware of it. There is no way to experience life as raw data. Our brains feed us French toast rather than kernels of wheat topped with unshelled eggs. In that sense the direct realist’s claim that nothing stands between us and the objects we perceive is rather misleading.

Perceptions are processed in ways that help us cope. For example, visual information is cleaned up and enhanced after it arrives in the brain. Suppose we are looking at an object that is equally bright all over its surface, according to exact measurements of brightness levels. To us its brightness will not seem uniform; it will seem brighter at the edges and corners than in the middle. By artificially brightening edges and corners the brain exaggerates boundaries, so that it’s easier to tell one thing from another. How convenient to see a universe of specific objects instead of a swirl of bewildering stimuli.

Changes are also exaggerated, making it easier to notice the movements of an animal. And when we watch a moving object, we experience it as being slightly ahead of its actual location. This helps a baseball player hit a fastball that’s ripping along at nearly 100 mph – and helps pitchers fool batters by throwing them a curve. Cavanagh reports that “when targets are moving, they are seen ahead of their actual retinal location because they are seen at their predicted next location” (“Perceived Location: A New Measure of Attention,” Conference Handbook, Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, July, 2013, p. 15).

There are blood vessels in the eye, right in front of the retina, and it would be confusing to peek out at the world through a grillwork of capillaries. So how does the brain solve this problem? Very simply. Anything that stays perfectly still in relation to the eyeball is invisible. Whenever the eyeball moves, the blood vessels move with it, so the blood vessels aren’t seen except under unusual conditions.

As you look at an object, a river of information flows up the 1.2 million fibers of your optic nerve into your brain. Once it arrives there, an early stage of processing establishes edges. One neural system graphs the horizontal lines and another attends to straight-up-and-down vertical lines. Others monitor an object’s shape, color, location, or name.

Sometimes people who have had a small stroke will lose one of these subsystems, but the others will remain intact. For instance, they may be able to name an object they are looking at and accurately describe it – but they have no idea where the object is located in relation to other objects! Their visual experience has changed in a way that is virtually impossible for normal people to imagine. They’ve lost their inner map of object location.

In a film called The Truman Show, the main character starts to suspect that what he thinks is real is just a made-up story. Eventually he discovers that the world he had known since birth was actually an enormous stage set. And we are all the stars of our own Truman Show. The brain manufactures our world and fabricates the way we feel about it. Presumably a lot of this brain-made story is reasonably accurate, but some of it is pure fantasy.

I like to picture my brain as a huge Tinkertoy sculpture, with billions of interconnected spools and dowels. Activate the connections of these units in one way and you feel like dancing. Switch around their activation patterns and you sink into existential angst. It seems as if “reality” has changed, but it’s all just patterns in our heads. If you can change the pattern, you can change yourself.

Roger Christan Schriner

Returning to Consciousness

I’m returning to this blog after taking several weeks off. Ironically, I stopped writing posts because I was too busy working on a book about consciousness, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. The book should be out this summer.

In my last post I talked about the debate between externalists and internalists. When we speak of conscious experiences, are we talking about our own states of mind or are we talking about things in the outside world that we’re consciously perceiving?

And could it be both? Could one and the same experience tell us about both the outside world and our own minds? Obviously it’s possible to detect two or more things by focusing on the same item. Think about a TV newscast. By watching it, you are monitoring (1) its content (what it’s telling you about world affairs), (2) the screen images which help convey this content, and (3) with old low-resolution TVs, the dotty little pixels that make up these images.

So a single stream of stimuli can tell us about several different things. Could it be that a multiple-detection process of some sort is occurring in consciousness? Perhaps sensory experiences are in some sense both inner and outer states (or processes). Even so, we run into trouble if we use this approach to answer the basic question, what are conscious experiences made of? Contrast these two claims:

❁ Seeing a giraffe gives me information about both what’s happening inside of my head and what’s happening in the outside world. I can tell that I am perceiving this animal in a certain way (seeing it clearly or fuzzily, for example), and I can also tell that there’s a giraffe in front of me.
❁ The stuff that I detect when I pay attention to the experience of seeing a giraffe is both the giraffe itself and a visual experience of that beast.

The second claim, which says what this experience is, just sounds silly. Tall spotted creatures and mental events in human heads are very different kinds of things. How could one thing actually be both of these? Compare: “I now see a red shape on my TV screen. This shape is both a screen image of a fire truck and the fire truck itself.” It seems more fitting to say that I’m seeing a screen image which I imaginatively experience as a fire truck.

If this tall creature I see IS both a visual state and a humongous mammal, we must be dealing with two different senses of “is.” So in what ways could this experience be something inside of the experiencer, and in what ways could it be something out there in the world? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Innies vs. Outies: A Philosophical Debate

Today I’ll say a little more about the battle between internalists and externalists. When we enjoy sensuous experiences such as sights, sounds, tastes, and tingles, internalism says we are accessing something inside of us. If the mind is in the brain, we’re detecting brain events. Nonsense! says the externalist. We are only conscious of objects out in the world and states of our own bodies. We do not detect our own brain-states.

I realize that there are serious problems with internalism, but it may contain a kernel of truth. Even though experiences seem to present us with external objects, this cannot always be so in any simple way. When we’re dreaming or hallucinating, for example, we are not typically perceiving events in the outside world.

Furthermore, sensory perceptions are actually much less world-like than we may imagine. Perceptions are processed in all sorts of convoluted ways, and the resulting experiences may be quite different from the things we’re perceiving. In fact, systematic visual illusions begin at the point where the surface of the eye meets the air. The air is full of atomic particles, but I visually experience air as if it were nothing. If I perceived air in the same way I perceive walls, I would be as blind as if my head were encased in concrete. It is an enormous distortion of reality to experience air as nothing, and a wall as something, and consciousness involves a great many such useful distortions.

The standard response to problem of illusions and hallucinations is that “we directly perceive external arrangements, but do not always perceive them as they actually are” (Harold I. Brown in Edmond Wright, ed. The Case for Qualia, p. 53). We can’t hear some sounds that dogs can hear, and they can’t see colors as we can. But we’re perceiving the world, and so is Bowser.

“That still smells fishy,” complains the internalist, who maintains, for example, that a pain in your toe is not literally “in” your toe, even though you automatically think of it that way. If sensory inputs stopped registering in your brain, someone could smack one of those little piggies with a hammer and you wouldn’t feel a thing. And if a surgeon stimulated the right spot in your brain, it might seem as if something ghastly was happening to your toe even though no one was touching it.

In one experiment during the 1950s, doctors installed electronic probes in the brain of someone with a severe mental illness. This ethically problematic procedure produced very vivid experiences: “The patient giggles again, transformed from a stone-faced zombie into a little girl with a secret joke. ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ she asks. ‘You must be hitting some goody place.’” In another experiment rats were allowed to press a lever that shot a jolt of electricity into their pleasure centers. They “self-stimulated until they passed out.”


Philosophical “innies” also note that if something in the outside world changes, we will only perceive this change if it registers within our minds. But if our way of perceiving the world changes, it will seem as if the world has changed even if it has not. Want to make it seem as if the world in front of you has disappeared? Just close your eyes.

For their ultimate trump card, internalists can whip out the famous brain-in-a-vat scenario: A mad scientist of the future keeps a brain alive in a liquid solution, while stimulating it in a way that triggers seemingly normal sensory experiences. The brain therefore thinks it is inside of a body that’s walking around and living a normal life – the ultimate virtual reality simulation. But it is only in touch with its own internal states.

Some externalists deal with envatment by flatly denying that this brain would experience anything at all, even if its states happened to be identical to, say, the states of your brain right this second. But if a brain in a vat could, in principle, have conscious experiences, this seems to show that internalism is true. Experiential phenomena are, literally, in the head. Does that make sense to you, or do you tend to side with the externalists?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Your Sensory Experiences: Are They in Your Head or Out There in the World?

Suppose you’re at a jazz concert. You notice horn-like noises, along with what seems to be a visual image of someone working the slider of a bright, brassy trombone. Here are two ways of thinking about this episode, assuming that you are perceiving accurately rather than hallucinating.

❁ You are directly perceiving someone playing a trombone.
❁ You are inwardly experiencing sounds and sights, which leads you to infer that someone is playing a trombone. This inference happens with such lightening speed that you don’t even notice it. All you notice is that you’re seeing and hearing a trombone solo.

On the second interpretation, we do not directly perceive the world. Instead we are aware of an inner simulation of worldly objects, and we treat this simulation as if it were real.

Phenomena such as horn-sounds and the visual image of a musician have sometimes been called sense data. Some advocates of “indirect realism” claim that we know sense data directly, and this indirectly informs us about real events in the outside world.

In the early Twentieth Century many indirect realists thought sense data were non-physical, following in the footsteps of Seventeenth Century philosopher René Descartes. But this “Cartesian” view has been rejected by those who believe that everything is made of matter. To them, speaking of immaterial substances such as sense-data sounds like mumbo-jumbo. So indirect realism has acquired a rather bad odor these days, especially if it even hints at sense data. An influential paper by Gilbert Harman disparaged the “notorious sense datum theory.” ( Uriah Kriegel reports that indirect realism “is widely regarded as bankrupt …” (Subjective Consciousness, p. 225).

Many scholars have now abandoned the “internalist” idea that experiences are inside of us. Marching under the banner of externalism, they contend that conscious experiences only inform us about things in the outside world. Michael Tye, for example, has famously proclaimed that “[sensory] phenomenology ain’t in the head.” (Ten Problems of Consciousness, p. 151.) He concludes a recent book by calling scholars to the barricades:

“For the thoroughly modern materialist, the thesis of phenomenal internalism … should be ‘committed to the flames.’ Only then will all vestiges of Cartesianism be eliminated from the materialist worldview.”(Consciousness Revisited, p. 199)

In asking whether consciousness could be a brain event, we are actually dealing with two questions:

❁ Why don’t conscious experiences seem like brain events?
❁ Why does it seem as if they are definitely not brain events?

Obviously conscious experiences do not grant us admission to the nonstop party our neurons are having in our skulls. Nevertheless, experiences could consist of brain activity even though we cannot introspect them as brain activity. This may be no more mysterious than looking at a river or a geranium without detecting the atoms of which they are composed. In this blog I will mostly focus on the more difficult question – why sensory experiences seem to almost shout that they are not brain events.

When someone enjoys the sights and sounds of a concert, the smell and taste of pecan pie, or the tingle of a caress, are these experiences mental events? Are they the direct detection of objects in the world? Or both? Or neither? What do you think – and why?

Roger Christan Schriner

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