Chapter 8. Intentional Visual Qualia
Chapter 7 described preliminary efforts to consciously influence visual qualia. I was able to stop the rapid motion of many mental objects and improve the completeness of some. Fewer objects filled the field of vision and individual objects could be isolated and their orientation changed. That’s the best I could do after about a month of 30-45 minute daily sessions. What these efforts have in common is that they attempted to influence the behavior of anomalous visual qualia. Parallel with these experiments, I have also been trying to create new ones.
To recap Chapter 3, millions of individual neurons firing in a (usually) ordered pattern send a large number of packets of data along virtual networks of neurons to arrive somewhere in the cortex, where they are assembled into perceptions, which we are calling qualia. The anomalous mental images discussed in Chapter 7 resulted from packets arriving from the visual cortex without input from the retinas. Their original purpose is (probably) to speed up visual perception, but when no retinal input arrives to the visual cortex, they are noise on the network and thus appear random. However, this isn’t the complete story. In fact, most studies (and there are few) of mental images focus on people who intentionally create visual qualia. This implies that there is a feedback loop between the conscious mind and the visual cortex, possibly with additional input from other parts of the brain (e.g., memory, emotions).
Scientists who study vision have identified two ways of creating mental objects without retinal input: 1) symbolic visual representation; and 2) pictorial representation. People who are unable to create type-2 images suffer no decrease in their ability to manipulate complex 3D objects mentally. How is this done?
No one knows what’s going on in our conscious mind when it creates visual qualia, so I’m necessarily speculating. Symbolic representations can be thought of as a list of features, like a table of points describing lines, points, etc. and how they are connected. It would include details about color and other properties. Every detail of an object can be described in the list and combined on-the-fly during mental manipulation because of the brain’s parallel processing capacity. The amount of detail depends on how well the object is remembered or imagined.
A pictorial representation is no less dependent on memory. It can even be false if it includes different memories superimposed on one another. It’s important to understand the difference because the symbolic representation is obviously the more basic (default) of the two kinds of qualia. Thus, it’s a good foundation on which to create intentional visual qualia. I propose that we have to create a symbolic mental image before a pictorial one can be created. Think of it like a framework, even though it can be just as complete in detail.
The first experiment was to create a blue ball. Easy to create symbolically. Not so much pictorially. I got a green pear-shaped object that wobbled as if filled with water. It lasted about ten seconds, during which it morphed and finally became a distorted green ball, before disappearing. After a few sessions, I could picture a blue ball about half the time. Other objects were interfering. Then I tried a baseball, focusing on the unique seam pattern. I got close but it wasn’t white. A soccer ball, with all those black and white pentagons, came out irregularly polka-dotted and not black and white. All dark colors. The biggest problem is STABILITY; the objects morph before I can mentally change them to proper appearance.
As discussed in Chapter 5, many of the anomalous visual qualia I experience are faces. Most are deformed or very dark with little color. But occasionally a complete face would appear, either in profile or facing me. I focused on making the faces more realistic. There was a noticeable improvement after a few weeks. Sometimes even complete people moving as if in a video, often talking but I didn’t hear any words. It’s still not under control, however; distorted shapes are the dominant visual qualia. None of the people I see are recognizable, not even as well-known actors. They may be amalgams of many faces or made up. I don’t know.
Since I was able to control faces to some extent, I decided to focus on my own face. That should be well-known to me, but nothing appeared. I couldn’t even generate a symbolic representation. I tried with people I know well, but no luck there either. Sometimes a recognizable photo would appear. A memory. I’m looking for an image of my current appearance, so I started studying my face in the mirror several times a day. I couldn’t create a mental image of my face. That struck me as strange, so I sketched myself in front of a mirror and focused on details that may have been overlooked in a casual examination, like while shaving. (The sketch doesn’t look like me.)
After working on this exercise for a few weeks, the best I can do is a brief symbolic visual quale. In other words, I am aware of an image but can’t see it. I’m currently focusing on my eyes, nose, mouth, separately and having limited success. Meanwhile normal faces are occurring more often.
The next chapter will discuss more complex visual qualia.