Monday, October 4, 2010

The Phenomenal Self and Visual Space

To respond to some of questions posed by Thomas Droulez in relationship to John Smythies' analysis of visual space, and the ostensive observer relative to it, I would just say that this has been considered a non-problem in cognitive psychology since the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate in experimental psychology. It is the subject of the paper I mentioned previously, "Sensory Localization as a Basis for the Self-World Dichotomy," which John read and approved when I first wrote it in the late 1970s, and later greatly elaborated in my monograph, "The Localization of the Mind."

Already in the 1970s we had a good deal of evidence from studies on newborn infant perception such as the work of developmental psychologist Thomas Bower in Britain showing that even newborns behave as if their bodies are different from their mothers' and, for example, demonstrating good ocularconvergence (implying working binocular vision), possess the ability to imitate their mothers' facial gestures. Even then such findings as these and others pretty well exploded old ideas such as William James' that babies experience only a "buzzing booming confusion," but instead argued that their perceptual worlds possess organization at birth, not only because of inherited genetic capacity, but because of continual in utero sensory stimulation knowing, for example, as we do now that light penetrates the uterine wall and is stimulating the retinae of the unborn child.

The implication of the infant studies research combined with other research on self perception was summarized in the context of J. J. Gibson's concept of visual proprioception by Ulric Neisser in his 1976 book Cognition and Reality:

The observer's movement does not provide information only about the
environment. The pattern of change and invariance available to his eyes
specifies his own movements as well. As he moves forward, for example, the
retinal projections of every visible surface in the forward half of the
environment become steadily larger. Under normal conditions, no purely
environmental change can create this particular optical flow. It specifies ego
motion and nothing else. Morever, the manner in which the projections grow
larger is not arbitrary: every projected point except one moves steadily
outward. The single exception is the very point toward which the perceiver is
moving. Thus not only the fact that he is moving but the direction of his motion
is fully specified.

The availability of this kind of optical structure means that one can see
one's own position and one's own movement as well as the layout of the
environment. Such perception is not indirect or inferential; information about
oneself is as directly available and as fully specific as information about
anything else. J. J. Gibson has coined the term visual
for the pick-up of self-specifying information from the
optic array. Propriospecific information is not simply a matter of seeing one's
own hands and body, important as this may be. (Under ordinary circumstances, the
perceiver's hands are probably the most frequently available visual objects.)
Even when no body parts are visible, optical flow patterns enable the perceiver
to see where he is and where is going. In short, the physical ego can be seen;
it need not be inferred. (p. 116f)

The higher order conceptions of self to which Thomas alludes logically would then follow from this perceptual basis, not precede it.


  1. One way at getting at the ontology of the 'Self" is to ask what could be removed yet retaining the Self. Vision and hearing certainly: a deaf and blind person has a Self. But what about somatic sensation? I have a recollection of reading somewhere that a lesion cutting off all somatic sensation results in coma, but cannot be sure of that. Ring a bell anyone?The facility of voluntary movement can be lost (as in the 'locked-in syndrome') without loss of the Self.

  2. Coma and extinction of somatic perception might just have been a coincidence in this case, because without the patient reporting the cessation of their somatic perception (being comatose), how can one know that is what they experienced? Perhaps they were in a coma but could still feel their bodies?

    I would ask what quadraplegics experience? Presumably there disability is normally just motor, but is there also a sensory version as well, in which one has no somatic sensation from the neck down?

  3. I recall that quadriplegics can experience a phantom body (or parts) from the neck down. Also in spinal anesthesia one often experiences a phantom body from the waist down. I experienced this myself during a spinal for a knee operation. I expected to feel just cut in half with nothing below the waist. The reality was very different. I experienced my legs very vividly, but they felt enormously heavy—as though they were made of concrete—so that I could not move them for that reason—very unpleasant too! The neurological explanation is that the brain now has feed back from the legs that orders to move sent from the motor cortex have not been obeyed. The brain then assumes that this is because the legs have become enormously heavy and sends sensory signals to that effect to the body image.
    My position is that, just because people assume, there is no reason to claim that brains cannot assume too!

  4. A very interesting and useful account, John! I especially like the anthromorphism of "orders" being given by the motor cortex that have not been "obeyed" by the legs to move.

    I suppose if one wishes to believe that brains can "assume," why not livers, kidneys, and spleens? After all chemists talk about "molecular memory." As long as such analogies are not an impediment to knowledge they present no problem. But as Raymond Tallis argues in his book "Why the Mind is Not a Computer," unfortunately they tend to obscure the advancement of knowledge when they are assumed by people to be true. And remember that funny wisecrack that was current a while back about "what they say about people who assume"!

  5. Reply to John's answer: the capacity of voluntary motor action is indeed lost in the Locked-in syndrom condition whereas self-presence is still there. Of course, I fully agree with that observation, and yet, I cannot help thinking that these people still experience a 'self' because they still have a remaining form of voluntary control:namely, the ability to regulate their flow of consciousness, to control their mental occurrences by means of volitional efforts of mental focus and redirection (in Russel's wide definition of 'mental': from sensory imaginal onirical or mnesic representations involving their multimodal 'phenomenal space' up to more 'abstract' non-imaginal thoughts). I've read several accounts from people who either were able to communicate (by means of a mere residual eyelid movement -like Jean-Dominique Bauby) or were able to recover from that terrible pathological condition: they keep explaining that their 'locked-in' condition gradually enabled them (after months of despair and frustration) to 'get in touch' with a 'deeper' level of self-presence involving a more focused and sensitive monitoring of their 'inner' mental life. I think that the only thing that could enable them to keep their core self-awareness wasn't the fact that they were still observers, but that they were still agents (somehow 'mental' agents). If someone became (is that even possible? are there pathological conditions in which this 'thought experiment' could be realized? - I think of Dominique Laplane's 'loss of attentional auto-activation syndrom', but I am not sure...and I am not sure either about the correct translation in English)totally unable to control any of his conscious experiences (either in the domain of the control of exteroceptive/interoceptive sensory/imaginal attentional focus and selection, or in that of the control of motor planification and redirection), then that individual would surely lose any sense of a 'self/other' distinction.

    Besides, I think that basic self-awareness (core self-presence on a perceptual-agentive ground, without any reference to the more elaborated sense of self-identity enabled by autobiographical episodic memory or to the reflective 'higher order' thought of 'thinking that oneself is the thinker of that thought', etc)is not a matter of visual 'image' or distance/separation within a visual 'image'(either at the developmental step of mirror self-recognition or at the step of inspection of the visual field itself), but rather relies on something earlier having to do with a discovery of the contradistinction between a center of volitional control(subsequently appearing as 'inwardness') and something resisting that control (appearing as 'outwardness'): when a baby discovers that some of the proprioceptivelly experienced movements of the 'body image' can be regularly influenced and selected (resisting some spontaneous 'urges' to move and redirecting others in a playful way, grabing one's feet, throwing repeatedly one's toys in a chosen direction or waiting before striking a definite moving target: all these actions are accompanied by the experience of 'something being under control' and 'something controling something else' -- this is of course an approximation of a primitive non-verbal experience).

  6. Is it not sufficient to say, as I did above with reference to visual proprioception, that the phenomenal self is largely defined perceptually? Coming to grips with the notion a transcendental ego is really rather beyond the scope of our discussion here, which explicitly concerns vision (i.e., perception) or related forms of imagination. Also, consider someone like Stephen Hawking or the late Christopher Reeve!

  7. Of course I should have said "My brain 'ordered' my legs to move and the legs failed to 'obey'". Here 'ordered' and 'obey' are shorthand for
    "When I tried to move my legs my brain sent impulses (A) down my motor system to my leg muscles and correlated impulses (B) to my parietal lobe. Usually when my brain does this, impulses (C) are sent back from proprioceptive and other receptors in my legs up the sensory system to the parietal cortex. Here they interact with messages B and nothing further occurs. But when a spinal anaesthetic has been applied, no A messages reach my legs and no C messages are returned. In this event my parietal cortex is left with its 'dangling' B impulses 'on hold'. So impulses are now initiated that go to the weight-sensitive (legs) part of the parietal cortex and stimulate this to lead to increased sensations of weight in my body-image."
    Since I do not want to write this lengthy account D each time, surely, if the sophisticated Tallis-savvy reader understands that 'ordered' and 'obey' have their technical meanings as defined in D, and not as defined in common usage, no one is deceived? But perhaps even writing on a blog read only by sophisticated people one should set a good example?
    In which case we need to cut D down to size with a few technical words.
    Of course I cannot say "When I tried to move my legs, I sent messages down my motor system." Try again. "When I tried to move my legs my brain Xed my legs to move and my legs failed to do so." Choose a new technical word to replace X—but is not 'failed' something only people do?
    The task is clearly going to be difficult! Perhaps one should stick with D after all?

  8. I agree with Thomas that patients with the 'locked-in syndrome' have a Self like we do. I do not think we should try to define the Self verbally. The Self is only capable of being defined ostensively.

  9. There was something odd about my phantom body experience under spinal anesthesia. I can find no such experience reported in the literature, although several people I have talked to confirmed the phenomenon from their own experience. The feelings of excessive weight and complete inability to move—as though the legs were made of concrete—were very compelling. Yet no such "weight feeling" has ever been reported in the case of arm phantoms. Moreover, these latter are usually easily moved voluntarily, as well as showing involuntary movements (like gesticulating during speech, or extending to catch a thrown ball). We need some more subjects.

  10. Schilder talked of the body being experienced as a "heavy mass" normally, so this is just a case of it being heavier--an "abnormal" heaviness, as it were. Conversely he also spoke of how emotions can affect that feeling of weight, thus the expression "feeling lighter" when, say, a bad mood has "lifted." Emotions are sometimes described as being "heavy," too, suggesting a corporeal component to them. Much of Schilder's discussion on these matters is in his big paper on the vestibularis (including his experiments with rapidly ascending/descending elevators, etc.).

    Presumably such heaviness in phantoms has not been spontaneously reported by patients, but perhaps they should be asked if there phantoms feel the same weight all the time.

  11. There are two syndromes in psychiatry that are of interest in this context. One is 'derealization' and the second is 'depersonalization'. In the first the subject complains that qualia have become "unreal". It is not much use asking what this means by soliciting further verbal descriptions. The only way to understand it is to experience this for one's self. I did this in my first mescaline experiment in 1951—and very unpleasant it was too.
    In depersonalization, in contrast, it is the Self that becomes unreal (not what the Self experiences as in the first case). This word structure suggests that to loose the reality feeing of one's self leads to loss of being a person. This has interesting implications for the concept of what it is to be a person, and what a 'person' can be said to do, such as think. But the problem is immensely complicated and difficult

  12. I am glad John brought this up again, because science would probably feel rather uncomfortable in general with the idea that physical things can somehow lose their reality as they do in derealization. Undoubtedly derealization would just be explained as a "subjective" condition, not reflecting anything "objective," because it does not subscribe to Jung's notion of the "objective psyche."

    Bob had previously raised the objection that this might be conflating different senses of real/reality, but I'm not so sure. Why must physical science insist on a black and white situation that things either exist or don't exist (convenient as that makes matters for the skeptics and their debunking)? Surely the whole big bang, being creatio ex nihilo, should be no more baffling that something being semi-real, or something real becoming unreal (if only in a qualitative sense).

    I come back to Ganzheit psychology once again in this context, because what it studied (back in the 1920s and '30s) were just such qualities of whole experiences, indeed such as this apparent quality of reality that is perceptibly lost in derealization and depersonalization. Von Ehrenfels' concept of "Gestalt qualities" is a more rigorous notion of what is bandied about as "qualia" today, which appears almost atavistic by comparison in terms of sophistication of conceptual (and experimental) analysis, i.e. like pre-von Ehrenfels thinking about such matters.

    I have a feeling that Simon might have some thoughts about this . . .


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