I hope this is a short post…it’s getting late.
When I moved to Australia, where they use kilometers rather than miles (a km is a little more than half a mile), I felt that it took forever to cover a km in the car. I waited and waited for the navigation system (Google Map) to finally announce that it was time to turn.
Jump forward…I returned to the U.S. and the miles I had grown up with. I couldn’t believe how far a mile was and how long it took to cover it…even a quarter mile seemed to be infinity. I wondered, “What the hell is going on?”
Then there were the traffic lights. Northern Virginia is not New York City…it’s worse, with what seemed 5-minute waits at red lights on wide streets with little traffic. Impatient with the delay in how time was passing, both in Australia and Virginia, I used the stop watch app on my phone to measure what seemed like hours at red lights. The delay ranged from less than a minute to about three (painful) minutes.
I swear that my mind doubled these wait times. Tripled them. An order of magnitude.
I was baffled because all the “experts” said that time goes fast as you age. Then I ran across a post that brought together a lot of ideas this blog has addressed. Speaking bluntly, time seems to speed up as we age if we don’t do new things, fall back on what some call automatic behavior, repeat each day. This makes sense.
Alternatively, if we constantly have new experiences our minds are focused, not wanting to miss something, and time dilates (I can never remember if dilation makes it slower or faster…whatever), dragging on and on and on, etc.
I suggest that everyone read the link above and, if your days are flying past, the red lights changing too quickly to notice, try some of the tips the authors recommend.
Apparently, writing about the Dao De Jing, wondering what it might mean to a person in my situation, was a useful exercise. Now, I enjoy the red lights that last for hours and nod to fellow travelers, even watching for storm clouds on the horizon…
It should be obvious by now that there’s a lot of noise impacting our prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is substantially responsible for our behavior. It should also be apparent that the brain primarily runs on perceptions and memory. There is no mysterious black-box generating original ideas and giving them to our PFC wholly formed. The black-box, to the extent that one exists, is the PFC itself.
The PFC has no other sources of input, no sixth sense, no primordial essence. Perceptions, supplemented by memory, arrive constantly and are compiled into qualia of varying complexity and accuracy (relative to the objective world). The PFC examines these, compares them against new perceptions and relevant memories, and chooses a course of action from a short list. Remember, we can’t keep qualia (which includes ideas and decisions) in active memory for very long, and thus decisions must necessarily be based on limited knowledge.
The result of this process is the creation of the BIG delusion, the sensation of being alive, of being a person. In a sense we are, of course; but we are not a person who exists independently of this constant merging of qualia, many anomalous, into more complex perceptions, ending in the EGO. I propose that the ego is nothing more than the cumulative result of an ongoing process of merging qualia during childhood, and storing them in long-term memory. Voila…we exist!
A paucity of information doesn’t prevent us from creating new qualia, however, once we’ve formed an ego. In fact, there’s no reason to assume this isn’t a continuous process; for example, I would propose that one reason children are so imaginative is that their PFCs are receiving more anomalous qualia than adult brains. Some of these random signals become enshrined in personality and ego. If this is so, it certainly is strong support for the existence of free will; i.e., we are not deterministic since there is a strong random influence on our perceptions throughout our lives (i.e., all those misfiring neurons).
To some extent therefore, I am refuting the hypothesis proposed in the title of this post. I stand by it, however, because it isn’t the existence of original ideas that I deny, it’s the myth of generating them through some kind of spark. Everything I’ve discussed in this blog suggests that it’s nothing more than memories, sometimes intentionally recalled, being joined with new ones–sometimes accurate, sometimes false and everything in between–that is responsible for insight. And especially creative genius. For fun, I’ll propose further that truly original ideas are created by PFCs being subjected to an unusual variety of anomalous qualia. Going even further out on a limb, I might add that creative art in general is the product of such anomalous qualia–the more anomalous, the more creative, avant garde, etc.
Every philosopher who has ever penned a monograph has felt required to explain a simple fact. As Nietzsche puts it, man “will rather will nothingness than not will.” By the act of creating their models from previous philosophers’ models ad infinitum, they are proving my point. The idea of needing something to do is based on this process of constantly churning up memories, getting them jumbled up, misremembered, combined into what is euphemistically called “Creativity.” The only difference between cutting the grass and writing a poem is the kind of qualia being processed and how they are recombined.
Taken a step further, Nietzsche discusses the origin of ideas like good/evil, punishment, god, etc in On the Genealogy of Morality. Obviously, when qualia are communicated to others they can be changed more, and become moral and socially acceptable rules. Once we can speak to others, however, we have passed the focus of this part of the blog.
Another interesting idea is expressed by Max Stirner in The Ego and its Own. He refers to a tripartite development sequence from childhood, to youth, and finally adulthood. Like so many philosophers, he imagines behavior coming from some human “essence” that is within all people. The modified definition of qualia I’m using makes the existence of an unknown spirit unnecessary.
This process of taking others’ ideas, adding to them, subtracting, mixing them up, spitting out a new and improved philosophy falls within what the ancient authors of the Dao De Jing calls Designing Action.
Verse 10 of the Dao De Jing suggests that such a process is unavoidable but should be recognized as less than ideal and thus minimized.
“…Can you clearly understand and make known the four [principles] without taking action? To produce and nourish but not for the sake of possession; to act but not depend [on design]; to further without domination. This is profound attainment.”
The objective is enlightenment, or profound attainment. The interpretation I’m using here suggests that we should strive to control the qualia that assault our PFCs. For example, from DDJ 2:
“…This is why people of Wisdom dwell on matters of non-designing action and go about teaching without words.”
However, it is acknowledged in DDJ 3 that action is necessary: “…Unite action with non-designed activity. Then there is no disorder.”
This wording suggests that activity can be non-designed. This could be a reference to acts based on subconscious feelings and intuition. Obviously, this is not meant as a suggestion to act impulsively, but rather to attain a sense of unity that would allow us to trust our instincts. Thus, this is probably advice intended for someone who has progressed in achieving a unity of the body and mind.
In fact, DDJ 38 explicitly lists a hierarchy of stages of behavior:
“…Higher attainment is non-designing and without intent. Lesser attainment acts with both design and intent. High benevolence acts with design but has no [further] aim. Higher righteousness acts with design and has an [ulterior] aim… When righteousness is lost there remains ritual.”
When philosophers describe behavior they are doing a service to the community, but when they impose their own designs, motivated by base desires like fame and such, they are doing what the Ancient Sages warned about. They have become self-righteous and are one step removed from ritual. To me this means that all those treatises on the reasons for human behavior are nonsense. Ego trips for learned men over the centuries.
Positivism is an approach to understanding that assumes that the only legitimate knowledge is gained through observation combined with logical reasoning (e.g., we can’t see electrons but we’re pretty sure they are real). Naturally, positivists apply their methods to social sciences as well, proposing general laws for human behavior. This is an example of my point in this post. There is no justification for proposing the existence of such laws. Isaac Newton observed objects falling and eventually proposed gravity. The positivists are assuming laws with no evidence.
An even better example of the arrogance of humans is given by one argument against Positivism. This argument says that scientific explorations do not reach the inner nature of phenomena; it is humanistic knowledge that supplies insight into thoughts, feelings, and desires. This is circular reasoning which proves the thesis of this post: What we call original thoughts and creativity is nothing more than “Humanistic Knowledge,” i.e., memory.
It is just as likely that the authors of the DDJ were espousing Quietism in their calm description of problems and solutions, and not wrapping their ideas with metaphysical verbiage that would only confuse the reader.
P.J. Laska, The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing: A New Translation and Commentary, ECCS Books, Green Valley, Arizona, 2012.
If thinking clearly is possible then it must also be likely that thinking irrationally occurs as well and is just as normal, even if we wish it didn’t occur. This is addressed in DDJ 2:
“All the world knows beauty…thus not being beautiful exists. All know good…so not being good exists. Being and not being arise together. Hard and easy complete each other. Long and short shape each other…Before and after form a sequence. This is why people of Wisdom dwell on matters of non-designing action…
The myriad beings [qualia] are active but do not undertake [to act], produce but do not take possession, function but do not depend [on design and control]. Gains are accomplished…Because there is no laying claim, [gains] are not lost.”
This verse has been interpreted many ways, which is always the case with ancient texts, but I think it has a down-to-earth meaning hidden in the paradoxical words. Rather than the more traditional interpretation, applied to the personal and societal action spheres, this can also be interpreted to mean that our perceptions and thoughts (i.e. qualia) occur both as positive and negative manifestations of neural activity.
We can and should work to reduce these anomalous qualia (i.e., non-designing myriad beings from DDJ 2) while accepting that they occur; although often leading to negative consequences, such as hasty decisions and real problems, sometimes they can lead to neutral or even positive outcomes. That is, they introduce an element of randomness into our perceptions of and interaction with the world; these erroneous qualia can help us think outside the box.
I don’t mean to imply that they are good, only that they are to some extent unavoidable. Rather than berating ourselves when they occur, we should try to integrate them into our cognitive processes. This is a part of being human and as such should be accepted without complaint.
It’s important to understand that our body and subconscious take no part in our conscious reaction to these anomalous qualia, as stated in DDJ 5:
“Heaven and Earth [body and subconscious] are impartial. To them the myriad beings [qualia] are straw dogs…Between Heaven and Earth is it not like a bellows, empty but not caving in, moving and supplying still more…”
In other words, never expect your body or subconscious to think for you. All they do is generate and/or react to qualia in a completely automatic way. This includes both real perceptions and useful thoughts as well as anomalous ones.
A final word from DDJ 21:
“The visible aspect of great attainment is just going along with the Way. How the Way becomes things is vague and elusive…within it are forms…within it are physical things. Hidden and obscure within it are seeds…Within them there is promise…”
The Way is how we find a balance between the three aspects of our Being (body, subconscious mind and consciousness). This is difficult but has real consequences in our lives and is worth the effort.
The Original Wisdom or the Dao De Jing, P. J. Laska, ECCS Books, 2012.
The model I’ve presented in previous chapters is sufficiently complex that I think it should be reviewed, especially with respect to how it can be used to improve our mental and physical condition. I haven’t discussed that very much, instead focusing on describing how the model might be implemented within our brains using the example of vision.
The Tripartite Organismic Stimulus-Response Cortical Augmentation (TOSCA) model consists of:
Tripartite: a synthesis of the body, subconscious mind (System One), and conscious mind (System Two).
Organismic: of or relating to or belonging to an organism (considered as a whole).
Stimulus-Response: our mind-body system responds to environmental input.
Cortical: we are focused on the brain and thinking.
Augmentation: the objective is to improve how we think.
The Dao De Jing presents a model similar to TOSCAM in pre-scientific terms, with a lot of information lost during the centuries before it was written down. I have brought it up to date and focused on its application to personal behavior. However, the model is holistic (i.e., organismic) and applicable to every scale of human endeavor. The DDJ lays out general principles that can be followed by individuals and societies, hopefully leading to modified behavior through improved, rational thinking.
My purpose has been to find physical and chemical mechanisms to explain our (mis)behavior. I have introduced the idea of qualia composed of virtual networks of neuron signals, sometimes arriving in an orderly manner but just as likely to be random and anomalous. This concept has been demonstrated primarily using visual perceptions without retinal input.
Anomalous perceptions of sensory input, memories, or thoughts are far more common than we would like to think. They are responsible for much of our irrational behavior and bad decision making. Not to mention simple errors based on faulty sensory perceptions.
There is some evidence that we can modify our conscious and subconscious processing of these anomalous perceptions, but it takes a lot of work. Neural pathways have to be modified, deleted, or created in a process we call learning; and no one ever learned anything without repetition. This is what several philosophical traditions have been practicing for centuries. I’m referring to Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, to name a few.
The substantial investment in time required to see improvement in cognitive performance has restricted the application of TOSCA-like models to a select few (e.g., monks), a situation worsened by the common focus on meaningless objectives rather than improved mental functioning. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on so-called experts with the time for intensive reflection to share their (often poor) insight with us through religious dogma and transcendental mumbo-jumbo.
Some improvement is possible through rigorous studies, such as required for advanced degrees, but those programs are designed for narrow purposes and not general cognitive enhancement.
I will now turn to the DDJ in earnest and try to interpret the set of rules it presents (in somewhat jumbled fashion thanks to the work of innumerable translators, propagandists, etc), in terms that can be applied in a daily program designed to improve how our minds operate.
This post addresses several interesting visual and physical phenomena that implicate cognitive processes in communications not only between subconscious and conscious thinking (Earth and Humanity, respectively, in the DDJ), but also with the range of chemical and physical connections between thinking and our physical body (Heaven in the DDJ). This is very much a work in progress, so it may not be clear by the end of this chapter. The title refers to discordant processing because, as suggested by previous clinical results (meditation studies) and theoretical considerations, cognitive processes are not operating uniformly or properly, at least not in my brain. So, we’ll start there.
DISCREPANCIES IN LEFT/RIGHT VISUAL PROCESSING
I have identified discordant visual processing in several ways both during introspection sessions and with retinal input. It is not obvious if the two kinds of discrepancy are related by physiological inconsistencies with incidental impacts on vision and/or cognition, so it’s important to proceed cautiously.
Previous posts have alluded to the use of memory to assist in the construction of visual qualia and the creation of anomalous qualia, visual and otherwise. The reported asymmetry of anomalous visual qualia in the left and right visual fields suggests variable access to memory in their creation without retinal input. For example, faces often appear as profiles, or nearly profiles, usually as if viewed from the right; when faces are seen head-on, the right side (looking at them) is blurry and deformed whereas the left half is often very clear and well proportioned. This difference suggests that the right visual cortex (left visual field) has better access to memory; in other words, my left and right visual cortices are not synchronized, at least not when in default mode (eyes closed).
Another interesting visual phenomena is the illusion of opening and closing my eyes when both eyelids are already closed. This illusion appears to favor the left visual field; i.e., it “feels” as if the left eye is open whereas the right eye often “feels” as if it is closed. When an eye is “opened” in this manner, the visual field becomes brighter. I can manipulate the illusion; “forcing” the right eye open and the left eye closed. This effect may have nothing to do with visual processing, instead being dependent on nerve and muscle connections in the eyes themselves.
The consequences of a discrepancy in visual processing are unknown, but could consist of several effects:
- poor visual processing, even with retinal input;
- practical problems with recognizing objects because of poor image completion processing; i.e., searches require longer and depend on more accurate retinal input
- unknown collateral issues, based on treating visual processing as representative of other cognitive processing
The human body is theoretically symmetrical. Mine is definitely not, from my longer right arm, twisted right hip, congenitally weak right knee, to the semi-paralysis of the right side of my face (i.e., muscles don’t respond well, making smiling difficult and lopsided), and sagging right eyebrow. All of these differences have existed all my life. It makes perfect sense then that the brain would be asymmetrical as well. When reading about this phenomenon, I came across an interesting research result:
The results suggest that while either hemisphere can generate spontaneous facial expressions only the left hemisphere is efficient at generating voluntary expressions.
In other words, our brains are apparently not perfectly symmetric in operation.
I’m going out on a limb here (again). My difficulty in generating voluntary expressions could be due to a left-hemisphere anomaly, if this is a valid result. Furthermore, speculating even more, the weak left visual cortex functioning described above could be caused by an anomaly in my left hemisphere. This is of interest because of potential collateral effects and the use of proxies to study cognitive function, as has been discussed throughout this blog.
Correlation does not directly indicate causation, but it is consistent with a common cause, even if two processes are not directly related through a physical mechanism.
RELATIONSHIP TO THE DAO DE JING
What does this mean, with respect to the stated purpose of this inquiry? From DDJ 2,
“All the world knows beauty as being beautiful, thus not being beautiful exists. All know good as being good, so not being good exists. Being and Non-being arise together. Hard and easy complete each other. Long and short shape each other. High and low fulfill each other. Voice and instrument harmonize. Before and after form a sequence. This is why people of Wisdom dwell on matters on non-designing action and go about teaching without words.
The myriad beings are active but do not undertake [to act], produce but do not take possession, function but do not depend [on design and control]. Gains are accomplished but not laid claim to. Because there is no laying claim, [gains] are not lost.”
If a well-functioning cognitive system exists, a bad one exists too, but it’s not the end of the world. We don’t have to say, “That’s just how I am…accept me for what I am.”
Learning our strong and weak points, both physical and mental, allows us to harmonize them and become more united in our approach to life. This is especially relevant to mental processes, which determine our emotional state and thus satisfaction.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining how our subconscious and conscious minds (Systems 1 and 2) interact. That’s because of the difficulty of exploring their relationship. I used visual perceptions for this effort and the work continues. It is very slow going; it isn’t easy to develop connections between parts of our brains, but progress thus far suggests that it is possible.
UPDATED RESULTS ON VISUAL QUALIA
First, I’ll give a brief summary of progress in controlling and creating visual qualia. I reported on multi-object visual qualia in Chapter 9, six weeks ago. As of this date, I can report slow progress in controlling and initiating visual qualia. I have learned that there are two preliminary steps: 1) clear my mind of all qualia (thoughts, visual, ear worms, etc.); 2) create a symbolic representation of the object I’m trying to visualize. This is a lot easier than going straight to a pictorial representation.
I sometimes create the blue sphere object, but not often. Usually, it appears as a globe (with the wrong continents) and is usually spinning. I can stop the spin sometimes but can’t hold it in my visual field for long. As far as picturing my face, no luck with a pictorial representation but I’m getting better at symbolic representations. This seems very strange to me. I don’t know what it means not to be able to picture yourself.
PHYSICAL NATURE THEORY
So far, this blog has discussed integrating the conscious (humanity from DDJ) and subconscious (earth) minds through the creation of intentional pictorial representations (visual qualia). Keeping in mind that I’m applying the concepts presented in the Dao De Jing to the three-part entity we call ourselves, we can look at what the DDJ says about the body (Heaven). It isn’t much.
From DDJ 10: In nourishing your physical nature and caring for the One can you integrate [them]? …
This is the starting point, integrating the physical aspects of our person with the ambiguous One. The One indicates Being, existing as opposed no Nonbeing, whatever comes before birth and our lives. In other words, we must take care of our body as well as the mind. The relationship between the body and mind has been discussed by many authors and is a basic tenet of most spiritual systems. That’s not what the DDJ is talking about. The DDJ is referring to something more fundamental.
DDJ 11 presents an interesting metaphor:
Thirty spokes together on one hub, but it is vacancy [in the middle] that makes the cart useful. Firing clay makes a vessel, but hollowness is needed to make it useful. Cut doors and windows in walls to make a room, the empty spaces are needed to make it usable. Therefore, Being serves the purpose of benefits, Non-being serves [as a resource] for use.
Equating Being with the One (from DDJ 10) implies that integrating the body with Being requires nurturing the body in an iterative process.
Recalling that Being creates Yang and Yin (what I’m treating as emergent pseudo-forces); these unknown forces create our bodies and thus minds as we physically develop. Science can’t answer the question of when we become alive, or what causes the metamorphosis from a collection of embryonic cells into an organism. Thus, unlike studying visual qualia in previous chapters, we can’t identify a proxy for this process; however, we can attribute this process to whatever force causes our cells to continuously regenerate. In other words, Yang and Yin are the unidentified mechanism for cell growth and regeneration.
Returning to DDJ 10, the integration of our physical nature with Being is a life-long process that keeps us alive. The ancient sages who compiled the DDJ understood this while not knowing how it works any better than modern science. It is mostly an autonomous process but, like controlling visual qualia, we can influence it through our behavior.
One last word about DDJ 11: These metaphors reveal the importance of the impenetrable Being. It is more fundamental even than Yang and Yin, which can be treated as biochemical processes. Some have called this the “spark of life.” Some call it the “soul.” I’ll just stick to Being. No matter what we call it, this foundation of existence is as empty as a wheel hub, a clay jar, or a room. It is an abstract concept that is critical to making use of physical objects. Thus it serves as a “resource” for our use, even if we can’t identify it.
There are a number of ways to promote the regenerative processes that integrate our physical nature with our Being, our essence. The DDJ doesn’t say much about this, but here’s a starting point:
From DDJ 12: …The five flavors ruin a person’s palate…This is why the [ancient] sages were for the belly, not the eye. They let go of the one and took hold of the other.
The five accepted flavors are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. These are what we can taste. Obviously, we enjoy tasting food, so we pile these on our bland cereals and vegetables. We should be eating for sustenance, not taste. As we eat more sugar, fat, salt, and spices, we lose our sense of taste for food itself. This is an endless cycle if we don’t curtail it. Stop chasing the short-term pleasure of strong flavors. This is reinforced in DDJ 53:
…taste what is without flavor…
Learn to enjoy food for what it is, rather than what has been added.
We can add a complementary act to this: stop eating so much. Food including fat, spices, etc tastes good, so we eat more of it than we need. This problem is compounded by the fact that it takes about 20 minutes before we become aware of our stomach being full.
Overall good health allows the body to function better. It’s that simple. Good health requires moderate exercise, enough sleep, lowered stress, etc. All the things nutritionists encourage us to do.
One final (I’m sure there are plenty more) thing we can do is spend some time during meditation focusing on our body. This is recommended by most meditational techniques. It works.
ACTION AND RESULTS
Turning again to my test subject (me); since I started this blog, I have stopped using any seasoning on my food, even salt. I have also reduced the quantity I eat, measuring the total food with a scale, not individual food groups (e.g., meat, cereal, vegetables). Consequently, I have lost 35 lb. and 3 inches off my waist. I enjoy what used to be bland food: e.g., spinach, rice, beans. I don’t go hungry either. My stomach has become accustomed to not being full after every meal. I still eat meat, mostly salmon and chicken, with a little beef once in a while.
I’ve started doing light weight training and stretching exercises, as well as increased my walking to 1.3 miles every day, which takes about 35 minutes. I walk four times a day because I have to take it easy with the walking due to lifelong issues with my knees; however, the lower weight has decreased the occurrence of discomfort.
I’ve decreased my drinking substantially. Now, I average 8 cans of light beer (~100 cal, 4.2% alcohol) per day, and consume no wine or distilled liquor. I don’t inhale when I smoke, but still…
I’ve got a long way to go, just as in controlling anomalous qualia.
The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing, Translated by P.J. Laska, ECCS Books, Green Valley Arizona, 2012.
The discussion thus far has focused on visual qualia because they are easy to recognize. I have presented examples of random objects and, after some practice at introspection, demonstrated that some control is possible. I don’t imagine that one can go from experiencing a few random visual qualia to creating scenes of tropical beaches in a few introspection sessions, however; instead it will probably take years of reconfiguring the virtual network that connects my visual cortex to my conscious mind. Therefore, this is the end of the discussion of visual qualia for now. I will report on notable improvements in consciously creating and controlling them as my skill improves.
This is only the beginning of understanding and controlling other qualia, however. I will briefly introduce several kinds of random qualia I have experienced and suggest ways to apply the TOSCA model to them as well.
First we can go through the other senses:
Many of us suffer from a periodic phenomenon known as “ear worms,” also known as Involuntary Musical Imagery. I propose that these are qualia produced by the same process as visual qualia; i.e., the auditory cortex is randomly generating packets of sounds (usually music) that sometimes reach the conscious mind coherently and are transformed into auditory qualia. We don’t have to be thinking about the song, although some research suggests that they can be triggered by memories related to the song (e.g., emotional response or an activity associated with it) as well as repeated exposure in the past. Most methods for dealing with them are anecdotal, like humming a different song or focusing on a cognitively challenging task.
Since I don’t hear Earworms constantly, it’s difficult to apply the introspection method regularly. However, they have sometimes occurred while I was focusing on visual qualia. One approach would involve focusing on the music and trying to expand the auditory qualia into a full song, remembering the lyrics. This might work to develop a mechanism like controlling the random visual qualia.
Not having a lot (none that I can remember) of random tactile sensations, I think this should include pain. I’m referring to what was called “growing pains” when I was a child. The cause is unknown. They are probably just like the random pains adults get, but for older people random pain is accepted as “getting older.” This category should include any pain with no observable cause, like most headaches, backaches, etc. I don’t get headaches very often, but meditation (i.e. introspection) has been shown to be a useful treatment for migraines. I imagine it should be similarly useful for random aches. Later posts will address the issue of improving unconscious communication between the physical body and our mind (conscious and unconscious).
SMELL and TASTE are inconsequential for me and won’t be discussed.
Emotional qualia are the sudden onset of emotional feelings, like disgust, anger, sadness, etc. These are complicated because there is a strong hormonal basis for true emotions. For my purposes, I am neglecting emotions that are reasonable responses to external stimuli such as danger, or learning about a tragedy occurring to someone we know. We are interested in transient emotions like a flash of anger, a sudden surge of excitement or happiness for no apparent reason. Maybe an image could initiate such an emotional qualia because there is no real stimulus in the environment, only an image or another quale – a thought quale. We’ll discuss those next.
Such emotional qualia can become a problem for some people, and many methods have been developed to address them, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, etc. Our interest here isn’t to to treat them as a problem whose symptoms need to be controlled but instead as a form of subconscious communications that we want to understand and control.
During introspection sessions, I am often distracted by auditory and thought qualia, but not usually by emotional perceptions; however, they may be disguised by more powerful qualia and go unnoticed. I will focus on them in future sessions. They probably would be discernible if an introspection session were to be completed during a time of emotional stress. More on that later.
We all have random thoughts. Sometimes they are about a subject we’ve been working on and are intuition, which is critical to creativity. Other times we have random thoughts, which have no bearing on anything. This second kind of thought quale contributes to our short attention span, but we have to be careful how we define this. Selective sustained attention, when we intentionally focus on something, is on the order of 20 minutes, whereas transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/distracts attention. This study is interested in the latter. Although there is no agreement by researchers in the field, we can all collect our own subjective data on the subject.
Some writers have reported a number on the order of 10 seconds for focusing without intent, like a quick thought that isn’t acted on, and is then forgotten. Certainly, our eyes move around very rapidly. In fact, the transient component (not under conscious control) of our visual attention span doesn’t appear to be much more than 100 milliseconds. This is consistent with the alpha wave brain frequency discussed in Chapter 3 for passive attention (8 – 12 Hz). In other words, if we aren’t intentionally focusing, our visual attention and probably cognitive attention span is short; one possible reason for this proposed by Nakayama is that sudden stimuli shouldn’t distract a person from something important that they’re focused on.
With respect to my own observations, this is a rather short interval for cognitive qualia to persist, but it is consistent with how easily my attention drifts during introspection sessions. During these sessions, I’m not focusing my thoughts on anything but simply trying to retain or control a visual qualia. Not much thinking is involved in that procedure. In fact, I try to keep my mind clear. That’s where cognitive qualia come in as distractions, which interrupt whatever attention I’m trying to focus on visual qualia.
Ken Nakayama and Manfred Mackeben, Sustained and Transient Components of Focal Visual Attention, Vision Research, v.29, 1631-1647, 1989.
Chapter 8 introduced intentional visual qualia. This post is going to back up a little and discuss visual qualia that are random, but not quite anomalous, or at least not unrecognizable partial objects. Before discussing the results of introspective sessions investigating multi-object visual qualia, I want to take a moment to discuss what an object, and thus a visual quale, is. The objects reported in Chapter 5 were treated as independent qualia. These qualia interacted (colliding, morphing, etc), creating new qualia, which continued the cycle. This brings up an interesting question: Are complex mental images composed of a single quale, or do qualia combine into a new quale having characteristics of its components? This has implications for how different functional parts of the brain (e.g., visual cortex) store representations in working memory to maintain and modify input to the conscious mind.
This might sound like a pedantic question, but the answer could influence how manipulating qualia can improve cortical function, for example functional communication and working memory.
Imagine yourself (create a symbolic representation) on a tropical beach at sunset, walking along the sand, the waves gently breaking on the shore. For our purposes, this is a multi-object, multi-qualia perception (e.g., visual, tactile, auditory, emotional). It is a single scene with multiple components. Most people can imagine it using symbolic representations of all of the qualia it contains, even if we can’t see the sunset, hear the waves, feel the sand, smell the ocean, or feel the sense of peace this image is supposed to convey.
This is a difficult scene to unravel because it’s easy to imagine turning one’s head and seeing the palm trees along the beach, and then looking offshore and seeing the sun on the horizon. Perhaps turning around and seeing the trail leading to the cabana. There are many components to the qualia we perceive. Are they separate qualia, or has the conscious mind created a new quale from the myriad of imagined perceptions coming from the subconscious? Recall from Chapter 3 that our brain works at pretty high frequency, so qualia can be updated (and replaced) relatively quickly. For example, while imagining this tranquil scene, its component qualia are updating at 8-12 Hz (8-12 times per second), and possibly as high as 35 Hz.
We will keep this in mind in future posts that discuss multi-quale scenes like this one. For consistency, I will retain (for now) the original definition of a quale as representing one object. Multi-object perceptions like the tropical beach will be defined as SCENES.
In other words, a scene is composed of qualia that are constructed by the conscious mind from packets, themselves composed of bytes of binary neuronal signals arriving from parts of the brain processing different kinds of stimuli (e.g., sight, sound, touch, smell). There’s a lot that can go wrong in this sequence. No wonder many of us can’t smell the rotting seaweed!
This post discusses two kinds of SCENES: (1) static mental images with multiple objects that persist long enough to be examined closely; and (2) dynamic sequences of multi-object images that change reasonably slowly over a sufficiently long time interval to be remembered. The cases discussed below were randomly generated and I exercised no control over them. I was a neutral observer.
One example of a static scene I recall occurred after I had controlled the anomalous visual stimuli. Two or three people (one woman) were dressed formally in a room with pictures on the wall and a table. They were close together. It lasted about five seconds. It was realistic but I didn’t recognize any of the people. The stock image could have come from thousands of movies and photos I’ve seen. I don’t know if it was modified or unaltered. Static scenes don’t seem to be as memorable as dynamic ones, which will be discussed next. It’s hard to forget those.
The first example we will discuss occurred several times on different days. It includes several large fish in a shallow river or lake; rocks; a sandy bottom covered with ripples and aquatic plants; the surface of the water is seen at the top of the scene. The water has an overall greenish hue, giving the fish a similar color, although they are very realistic, with irregular coloring. The fish are swimming slowly past my viewing point. It lasted at least 30 seconds on each occasion.
This scene is based on the Amazon rainforest exhibit at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. I have been there many times. The view point is based on an open aquarium tank, seen through the glass wall facing the aquarium visitor. What is different is that there is more depth to the mental image. The channel in the real tank is only a few feet across, although it is more than 50 feet long. The mental image fades in the distance, more like a natural water body rather than an aquarium tank. In other words, it isn’t a static photo of a scene I have certainly seen enough times to remember; instead, my subconscious has manipulated it, adding more depth, other objects (e.g., aquatic plants), and turned it into a movie. This sequence of images was delivered to my conscious mind in carefully coordinated packets and assembled as a quale. I call it a quale (more correctly a series of related quakes compiled into a scene). Why? I don’t know the answer, but we’ll talk about that in a later post.
The second example of a dynamic scene is striking and requires expansion of the idea of subconscious manipulation of memory to create visual stimuli.
I’m looking down on a wide, grassy valley with low hills in the distance. There are a few knolls within the valley floor. I’m not very high, maybe on a knoll, and about 200-300 yards distant. I have to turn my “head” (mentally; no head motion required) to view the expanse of the scene. The valley is empty. Then, a large group of men enter from the right side, dressed in blue with a couple of them riding horses. I have the impression that they are soldiers (maybe Union troops from the American Civil War) because several are carrying large flags. I have an emotional response to the soldiers; I feel that something is about to happen, maybe a battle. They march along the valley in front of me.
I look to the left and see what appears to be hundreds, if not thousands, of animals (I had the impression they were wolves) entering the valley. The soldiers can’t see them because of a slight rise between the two groups. As the soldiers start up the rise, I move in for a better look. This is interesting because I intentionally moved my position, hovering I suppose. I remained elevated. I get to within maybe a hundred yards when the protagonists see each other.
The scene jumped a little here, like fast forward, but smoothly without interruption. Suddenly the soldiers were running back the way they came with the wolves in pursuit. When the wolves are within about a hundred yards of the retreating men, they begin to dissipate into dust. We’ve all seen this special effects technique in science fiction movies. The dust cloud caught up to the men as the last wolf dissolved into dust. The troops were enveloped in the dust cloud. End of scene. It lasted almost a minute without interruptions and I was fully engaged as an observer. I had no idea what was going to happen and was quite surprised at the ending.
This scene is fascinating for several reasons: (1) I never saw this before; (2) I felt a slight sense of anticipation (I was emotionally engaged); (3) I controlled my viewpoint, interacting as it were, with the scene. Let’s address each point in turn.
(1) I have certainly seen formations of soldiers, in movies, paintings, dioramas, you name it. No surprise there. I have also seen plenty of valleys (this looked like a landscape from the Valley and Ridge region of central Pennsylvania). As I said, I have seen the special effect of dissolving objects into dust many times. I’ve also seen wolves and images/videos of groups of animals moving (e.g., buffalo in the U.S., migrating herds in Africa). In other words, all of the components of the scene came from memory. The interesting issue is how they were combined into a completely new scene that lasted almost a minute, all with no conscious control on my part.
(2) I’m not sure if my emotional response was part of the scene or my reaction to what I was viewing. It didn’t evolve into fear for the soldiers, however; when they were fleeing, I was indifferent. It was only when the soldiers first appeared that I was apprehensive.
(3) I controlled my view point by turning my head (essentially extending the scene through conscious action), and moving to a different location for a closer look, before returning to my original viewing point. This implies that the scene was responding to my conscious act (thought actually), my desire to change the view. That is dynamic interaction. This means that, not only were new details created on demand, the objects were stored in working memory and used to recreate previous view points. This has important implications for learning to control how our conscious and subconscious minds interact.
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.
As I’ve said before, The Dao De Jing is open to interpretation, and has been throughout its written history (at least from the 4th century BCE). Following this long tradition, I’m going to break with P.J. Laska in interpreting DDJ 2, second stanza:
“The myriad beings are active but do not undertake [to act], produce but do not take possession, function but do not depend [on design and control]. Gains are accomplished but not laid claim too. Because there is no laying claim, [gains] are not lost.”
Laska interprets the myriad beings in this stanza as being enlightened individuals (i.e., the Wise, from Goddard’s 1919 translation), which is in contradiction to his interpretation elsewhere, where they are all of the matter and people in the universe. I don’t like inconsistencies. Fortunately, applying the DDJ at the level of mental-physical integration doesn’t require a contradiction, at least not as applied in the TOSCA model.
The definition of the myriad beings/things as qualia is well described by this passage. It is entirely possible that the authors of the DDJ imagined qualia when writing this verse, in addition to applying it to the larger scales (e.g., personal, village). Visual qualia are temporary perceptions that are active and produce perceptions, and thus function to support consciousness. They clearly are not dependent on design and control, although that is a goal of the model. They are ephemeral phenomena that appear and disappear without conscious control.
How do we influence something as ghostlike as visual qualia? In Chapter 5, I defined five parameters to describe visual qualia: 1) KIND (e.g., geometric shapes, people, things); 2) ORIGIN (e.g., location in the visual field, the way they appear, intentionality); 3) DURATION (estimated in seconds); 4) COMPLETENESS (e.g., entire objects, pieces of objects); 5) STABILITY (e.g., the degree to which they change in appearance).
Just as with identifying visual qualia, influencing them is necessarily subjective. For example, someone with excellent mental image creation skills, influencing qualia may be innate whereas for someone who has never perceived even one, it could be extremely difficult. Since my experience falls somewhere between these two extremes, I will give examples from my experiments.
Rather than systematically attempting to influence each parameter separately, my initial work is trying to have some influence. After all, I don’t consciously create them and can’t turn them on and off at will.
First, we need to standardize the experimental conditions. After some preliminary tests, I’ve chosen to complete the tests laying on my back on a bed with a pillow, arms away from my body to avoid contact between my hands and body. The eyes are lightly closed. By the way, this won’t work if you’re are the least bit sleepy. The point is to remain completely awake and alert at all times.
The next step is far more difficult than lying still. Clearing all thoughts from the mind is critical. However, a little drifting doesn’t ruin the experiment but only causes the qualia to sometimes stop being perceived or, at worst, some progress may be lost and have to be repeated. This is extremely hard for me to maintain because the mental images remind me of memories or events, plans, etc, and I drift into thinking about these unrelated, undifferentiated qualia. Remember, the conscious mind is bombarded by data packets (e.g., thoughts, touch, hearing) and creating qualia from them. We’re focusing on visual qualia for now.
The third step is easier than it sounds. Keeping spurious thoughts out of mind, I speak (mentally) about what I’d like to control: for example, I might say, “Slow down,” or “I’d like to see faces only.” Don’t get anxious during these attempts. The qualia aren’t a video game and they don’t do your bidding.
The fourth step turns out to be rather easy once you see some progress. Be patient. I have discovered that several test sessions lasted 45 minutes with no sense of time passing. (No, I didn’t fall asleep.) When busy, your mind loses track of time. I usually end a session when I’m not seeing any more progress. Staring at blackness, or wildly cavorting images for that matter, can be very frustrating.
When I first tried introspection, it took as long as ten minutes for visual qualia to appear. Sometimes, it still takes that long but, more often than not, they begin within minutes or seconds. (We’ll talk about intentional visual qualia in the next chapter.)
I have been conducting experiments of 30-45 minutes duration every day for about a month (no daily log available).
At first, I used simple mental commands like, “Slow down,” to stop the dizzying dance of qualia I first reported. Such motion is rare now with no conscious effort. Sometimes, I can get a specific image to sit still, (e.g., saying “Stop moving.”) but I can’t keep it from morphing into something else. I think that image STABILITY is improving, but image DURATION is still very short. I can’t say much about COMPLETENESS because there were always “complete” heads at times although they were rare.
The parameter ORIGIN needs to be redefined to include position and orientation. I have discovered that I can move images sometimes within the visual field, as well as rotate them about 90 degrees. Not consistently, however. Also, the KIND of images seems to be changing. Whereas I initially perceived a crazy jumble of twirling and spinning objects, there are now fewer images in the visual field at once (sometimes only one) and they aren’t so unstable.
The next chapter will discuss specific experiments in creating visual qualia of just two kinds: balls and faces.
The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing, Translated by P.J. Laska, ECCS Books, Green Valley Arizona, 2012.
Tao Te Ching. The Book of the Way, Translated by D. Goddard, 1919, Edited and revised by S. Torode, Ancient Renewal, 2020.