Chapter 4: Visual Qualia
The next few chapters are going to focus on visual perceptions, but not of objects in the physical world. That will come up eventually but as part of studying the Dao De Jing, I am more interested in introspection. For example, here is a quote from DDJ 16:
“Attain the utmost emptiness, secure unbroken stillness. The myriad things arise together and we watch their return. Though they flourish in great numbers, each returns again to the source. Returning to the source is called ‘stillness.’ Stillness is called ‘returning life.’ Returning life is the meaning of constancy. To know constancy is enlightenment. Not to know constancy risks disasters.”
This quote discusses the relationship between the myriad things and the objective of this blog — enlightenment. In other words, enlightenment is a state of stillness, in which the creation and destruction of the myriad things (defined in Chapter 1 as expressions of the tripartite body-mind system that comprises us as individuals) is accepted as natural. They shouldn’t distract a person from more important matters.
The previous chapter introduced the concept of qualia, but now I want to explicitly state that the myriad things (and myriad beings) referred to in the DDJ are qualia in the TOSCA model. These are built from packets traveling the virtual network that permeates our brains. These packets are constructed of bytes, which are composed of bits, which are individual neurons (and what state they’re in – on or off). This chapter discusses visual qualia that originate from within the body-mind system.
Everyone dreams and most of us remember at least something about our dreams, which usually involve visual images, even if only poorly recalled. There are several reasons for this: the hippocampus (which moderates the transfer of data from short-term to long-term memory) changes its functioning when we sleep; neural transmitters that promote memory formation have different concentrations during sleep; dreams occur in a mental state similar to mind wandering, and thoughts simply aren’t recalled in that state (a good reason to write down epiphanies immediately). Those completely imaginary visual images in our dreams are qualia.
Dreams are of no direct use in applying the TOSCA model, however, because even though we are conscious when we sleep, we have no control over our thoughts. We turn instead to visual qualia that we perceive when we are awake and able to take some kind of action. (See The Mind’s Eye.)
I’m going to interject my experiences with creating visual images to set the stage for the discussion. Books about psychology and neuroscience often have visualization exercises, in which the reader imagines, for example, a red letter, or some kind of image like a boat, etc. I tried to follow along but could never see the image, but only imagined it and manipulated it following the instructions and understood the exercise. But I never saw anything. I ignored this discrepancy and assumed it was simply a case of ambiguous words – semantics.
I’ve been practicing meditation (actually introspection with a metaphysical label) and sometimes I would sit quietly with my mind as blank as I could make it for up to thirty minutes. I had always ignored the strange images I would sometimes see after about ten minutes. It didn’t always occur, so I assumed (again) that they were random images from memory. I read about this phenomenon and discovered that creating mental images is quite common, so common in fact that researchers invented a name for people with no ability to see with their mind – Aphantasia. It hasn’t been investigated much because (apparently) the psychologists who study vision and brain function are quite familiar with the phenomenon. (They must have assumed that everyone was like them.)
What these two experiences imply is that I can’t intentionally generate visual qualia. And I’m not the only one. Conversations on the topic are obfuscated by not having a clear definition of a mental image. The mind’s eye is a catch-all phrase for imagining something, whether descriptively or visually. This leads to dividing visual qualia into two types: descriptions that can be thought of as a list of characteristics (often very detailed) of an object; and actual visual images created in our visual cortex and passed to…wait a minute – just where is consciousness located?
There is no answer to that question, but recent work has found a link between the brain stem (most basic part of the brain) and two other regions in the cortex. As I said in describing the virtual network within our brains, it is distributed and that applies to everything else, including consciousness. So, the images created by separate visual processing circuits in the two halves of the brain (the left-brain processes the right visual field from both eyes, and vice versa) are sent along the VN to be constructed as qualia by the distributed consciousness system.
The next chapter will discuss how these qualia might be perceived through personal observations. The data are necessarily subjective in this kind of study, so I’m going to be using myself as the test subject.
The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing, Translated by P.J. Laska, ECCS Books, Green Valley Arizona, 2012.