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Chapter 3. Perceptions as Qualia: Bits, Bytes, and Packets

The Tripartite Organismic Stimulus-Response Cortical Augmentation model (TOSCAM) consists of four components so far: the human body; the subconscious; the conscious mind; and as-yet undefined stimuli, which I temporarily referred to as qualia. This post will explore this last component in more detail.

I did some more reading and discovered that perception is conceivably more complex than simply seeing or hearing something. Philosophers have constructed many theories to try and understand what we see, etc., including the physicalist model, which (greatly simplified) proposes that nothing is going on in our mind. A signal, like the light spectrum from an object we are viewing, is processed into a series of neurons firing and sending a representation of the object to our prefrontal cortex, where it is perceived as it really is. That sounds pretty straightforward, but someone pointed out the existence of hallucinations and other phenomena like phantom limbs, that aren’t representations of anything a person is experiencing. One concept that grew out of this discrepancy is Sense-Datum Theory.

Vastly oversimplified, Sense-Datum Theory proposes that sense data consist of both content and intrinsic non-representational features (e.g., blobs of paint comprising a painting). This latter signal is what is called a quale (qualia is the plural). Unfortunately a quale can’t be measured and is nothing more than a hypothetical construct, so there’s a lot of controversy associated with the idea. For example, many philosophers treat it as the sensation of perceiving (e.g., how does it feel to “see” red).

Here’s an interesting summary from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see note 3): “…we still seem to be left with something that we cannot explain, namely, why and how such-and-such objective, physical changes…generate so-and-so subjective feeling, or any subjective feeling at all…Some say that the explanatory gap is unbridgeable and that the proper conclusion to draw from it is that there is a corresponding gap in the world. Experiences and feelings have irreducibly subjective, non-physical qualities…There is no general agreement on how the gap is generated and what it shows.

To muddy the water even further, here’s another interesting comment on qualia as representational: “If I feel a pain in a leg, I need not even have a leg. My pain might be a pain in a phantom limb. Facts such as these have been taken to provide further support for the contention that some sort of representational account is appropriate for qualia.

I was going to drop the concept of qualia in my model and instead use a concrete word like sense-datum as the information-carrying medium for perception and let the philosophers argue about the details. However, I’m not going to be publishing my model in any peer-reviewed journals and I like the idea of a simple word rather than a phrase. I’ll keep qualia with the caveat that it is being used in a representational sense. I accept “some sort of representational account” as good enough for my purposes.

Without espousing Sense-Datum Theory, I am going to use the following definition of a quale (actually a sense-datum): an immediate object of perception, which is not a material object; a sense impression. I’m only using the concept, not the theory. In fact, neither quale nor sense-datum are very useful because they leave us with a vague concept of something we are aware of (perception) and not how the perception was created. How is a quale (sense-datum) created? (I’ll use the parentheses in this post only.)

Let’s think of the brain as a computer network. This is an old idea and it isn’t particularly applicable; after all, there are no main network cables within our heads but instead trillions of axons connecting every neuron to practically every other neuron with an uncountable number of intermediate neurons between them. We can get around this gross oversimplification by introducing the idea of a virtual network. For example, perceiving an object (philosophers like to use tomatoes) is the result of a complex process that turns the electrical signals from over 100 million rods and cones into an image, which is then identified, cross-correlated, and delivered to our prefrontal cortex, ready to be acted on. We may cut the tomato up or put it in the refrigerator for later use. However, those millions (who knows how many) of neurons are firing synchronously to deliver the total package of what we perceive as a “tomato.” I’m calling this organized firing of millions of neurons a virtual network (VN). A virtual network isn’t static. For example, here are some neural frequencies during different mental states.

Beta (β) 12–35 Hz Anxiety dominant, active, external attention, relaxed
Alpha (α) 8–12 Hz Very relaxed, passive attention
Theta (θ) 4–8 Hz Deeply relaxed, inward focused
Delta (δ) 0.5–4 Hz Sleep

These data suggest that any given VN (say, that associated with looking at a tomato) is at risk of being deleted as often as 35 times per second, and at best lasts a couple of seconds. Obviously, we can hold a thought or perception longer than this; what this implies is that any specific quale (sense-datum) must be refreshed or updated continuously or it will be replaced by something new (perhaps a carrot lying next to the tomato).

To complete the network analogue for the TOSCA model, we need to define qualia in more detail. The digital model of bits (binary device that can be on or off, 0 or 1, etc.) seems appropriate to describe the smallest unit of information transfer among neurons, which are either on or off. Some arbitrary number of neurons firing in unison as part of generating a quale (sense-datum) is somewhat analogous to a byte for the TOSCA model. In most computer applications, a byte consists of eight bits. This is the smallest unit of storage in computer memory, but we don’t have that restriction in the brain. Nevertheless, it is a useful concept because a byte is not sufficiently large to generate the perception of a tomato. For example, a few dozen neurons (bits) could form a byte that contains information only about the color of the tomato, and other bytes would encode other characteristics (e.g., location in space, roundness, softness).

To assemble a quale (sense-datum) for the perception of an object, thought, emotion, etc, we need to organize all those bytes coming in from millions of neurons over the VN. This can be done using the concept of a packet borrowed from digital networking. A packet contains both data and information about how it should be decoded, a perfect idea for the model. For example, groups of bytes can be virtually organized into packets that contain shape information, etc, and telling the receiving part of the brain (e.g., the prefrontal cortex) which ones go together. No one has a clue how this is done. It is an abstract concept even in brain research. We only need the concept to continue; and with the idea of multiple packets arriving from different brain areas with information about what they contain, a quale (sense-datum) can be perceived.

This has been a moderately technical post, but it was necessary to have a complete concept for the TOSCA process before applying it to real-world examples. The next post will focus on visual perception and how it can be studied, using introspection to examine and control qualia, or sense-data.

 

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Notes:

Qualia. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published Wed Aug 20,

Huemer, Michael, “Sense-Data”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Dead of Night

Franklin pushes the handle of the mop submerged in the suddenly heavy mop bucket filled with water and floor cleaner past the nurses station into the emergency room, feeling like sitting down in one of the plastic seats. He doesn’t do it because he’s a little behind schedule after spending fifteen minutes in the custodian room at the beginning of his shift, recovering from the ten-minute walk from the bus station to the hospital. Arriving at his destination in the vending area, he begins to mop the floor stained and sticky from coffee and soda as the emergency room explodes into activity.

Several gurneys are wheeled in by orderlies with doctors and nurses appearing suddenly to attend to the half-dozen men and women suffering from gunshot wounds during a gunfight less than a block from the hospital. He’s seen this enough that he keeps working, until he recognizes one of the victims’ pleading voice as his son’s. He drops the mop and hurries after the group that has gathered around Joseph, sixteen-years old and a good student, who isn’t involved with gangs.

“He’s my son,” Franklin tells the nurse as she tries to prevent his entering the room where Joseph is being moved from the gurney to the bed by two orderlies, a nurse, and a doctor. He is pushed away from his son’s bed by the sheer volume of the doctors and nurses trying to save Joseph’s life. He resigns himself to waiting in the hall and continues mopping the floor, which is better than the large group gathering in the waiting room, some of them covered in blood. He doesn’t like the look of some of the young men he notices as he takes his bucket and mop to continue his work in another corridor. He’s accustomed to changing his mopping schedule in the inner-city hospital where people seem to find ways to injure themselves, even without guns, in the middle of the night.

Franklin forgets to call his wife and tell her about Joseph’s arrival at the ER because he’s distracted by the pain in his chest and his arm. “It doesn’t matter,” he tells himself. “There’s nothing she can do for Joseph and I’ll call her with the good news when Joseph is recovering.” Thus consoled, he finds that mopping the floor keeps his mind from wandering to the room where Joseph is lying unconscious, so he forgets about the nightmare he is experiencing. When he finishes mopping the floors in the rooms connected to the corridor, it’s time to replace the antibacterial mixture in his bucket. He’s dreading retracing his steps back to the custodial closet, past Joseph lying in a bed, and past the noisy group still gathering in the ER waiting room.

He enters the ER and goes to see how Joseph is doing. He has no problem now that there aren’t so many nurses and doctors getting him stabilized but when he looks behind the curtain, Franklin discovers that a young girl has replaced his son on the bed. She has tubes connected to her arm and an oxygen mask, but none of the machines is making a disconcerting sound, so he quietly slips out and goes to the nurses station, where Mary greets him with a worried expression.

“I guess Joseph is out of danger and in a regular room now,” he says with relief.

Mary shakes her head imperceptibly and, with tears filling her eyes, says, “I’m sorry, Franklin…I’m so sorry. I can’t believe it…I just can’t believe it…”

Franklin stumbles backwards and falls to his knees but doesn’t collapse from the pain in his chest. Mary rushes around the counter and asks him if he’s feeling ill and, as she helps him back to his feet, he stammers, “It’s such a shock to lose Joseph… I have to call my wife and tell her about it. I’m going to do that now.”

Mary watches Franklin ponderously push his mop bucket past the waiting area as the noise of the crowd suddenly increases in ferocity. Franklin is awakened from the stupor brought on by guilt and pain and looks up as several male voices make challenging and even threatening statements, which are answered by shrieks and profanity from the people closest to a young man who suddenly pulls a large pistol from his pocket and points it at an older man standing in front of him.

Without thinking, Franklin pulls the mop out of the bucket and ignores the pain in his chest as he raises it over his head and rushes forward. The heavy, wet mop sends the gun crashing to the floor as Franklin falls in a heap to the linoleum tile. He smiles as the gunman is knocked down by the force of the crowd.

Chapter 2. What’s in a Name?

In Chapter Two, I laid out the basic outline of the psychological DDJ model these posts are exploring. It’s time to invent an acronym, as much as I personally dislike alphabet salad, because it’s too cumbersome to keep repeating a long name and standardization has a lot of advantages. Let’s review the components to get started.

The model I’m developing comprises (so far) four components: modules representing the body, the subconscious, and the conscious; and another ambiguous category that the DDJ calls Vital Breaths. That’s a pretty simple model, but I’m sure it’s going to get more complex as I delve into it. Nevertheless, we need a name, and it isn’t going to include a word that could mislead some to think that there is any spiritualism involved. I’m not going to use DDJ words (ambiguous translations from ancient Chinese), so perhaps it would be useful to summarize the three observable components (body, subconscious, and conscious) into a single concept like tripartite, which means split into three parts. That’s pretty easy to remember. There is no way Vital Breaths is going into the name, so we need something more precise than a two-millennia-old definition from before the invention of PET and fMRI instruments, not to mention all of the other tools used by neuroscientists in the modern world.

Qualia  are defined as: “the internal and subjective component of sense perceptions, arising from stimulation of the senses by phenomena.” That’s pretty simple and unambiguous, but it doesn’t quite meet the needs of the model I’m developing because it only refers to sensory input; what we need is a more general concept that will include homeostatic mechanisms as well. Homeostasis uses biochemical factors, DNA transcription networks, bioelectricity, and other physical forces to regulate the cell behavior and large-scale patterning during embryogenesis, regeneration, cancer, and many other processes. Sensory input and homeostasis both operate as stimulus-response processes; a signal is received by a cell, organ, etc, and the system responds.

So far, we have tripartite and stimulus-response. This is primarily a psychological model, but it will be indirectly applicable to the body as well (recall the fourth component); thus, we’ll throw in organismic to explicitly define it as a biological model.

The primary mechanism to which the model can be applied is Cortical Remapping. Cortical maps consist of adjacent neurons within the cortex that are direct (spatial) representations of parts of the body, images from the retina or memory. They can be strengthened and enlarged through reinforcement, whereby connections between the body, subconscious, and mind can be altered and (presumably) augmented as evidenced by learning.

We have identified all of the components of a psychological model based on the ancient wisdom of the DDJ, but updated to be understood and applied by modern people.

For the rest of these posts I will refer to this process as Tripartite Organismic Stimulus-Response Cortical Augmentation (TOSCA) and the model as TOSCAM.