Perception

Is what we see an objective view of actually what is there in front of us or is what we see a projection that is created by our own consciousness of what we perceive to be there?

Anil Seth, a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience thinks that what we see is a controlled hallucination, “our brain’s best guess” of what is there made up of its own inference of the information it receives from our eyes.

I agree but it’s more complex than that.

Evolutionary theory generally accepts that vision, as an early part of the mechanisms that make up consciousness, was devised to give us perception at a distance so we could see our food and also avoid obstacles that blocked the path to our food so early optical apparatus would be pre programmed to distinguish between objects that offered us benefits, such as food and objects that hindered us, such as predators or obstacles.  Those with the optical receptors that gave the best indications of things to go towards and things to avoid would pass their genetics along and those that didn’t would die out. So the organisms with the vision that best perceived fitness and gain over danger and loss are going to do better.  

If our vision showed us objective true reality it would be unnecessarily cluttered and complex, more efficient vision would pare down what we see to a simplified system of icons that clearly showed us what we needed to see and not what we didn’t.  

Think of a computer desktop, you’re not seeing the internal workings of your PC, you’re seeing icons as part of an interface that helps you efficiently navigate tasks without seeing exactly what takes place behind the scenes.

You get the information you require in a very simple form making your tasks much easier.

Imagine if you wanted to send an email using a computer with no user interface installed on it.  You would need to understand the nature of voltages, microcircuitry and writing code among other complex interactions to get the task done.  A user interface simplifies things by hiding all the complexity and giving you clear clickable icons to get you where you need to go.

It would be simple to destroy the interface theory by saying if what we see are just icons then why can’t I stand in front of a speeding car if it’s not really there?

Well if I found the document icon on my laptop screen for this piece I am currently writing and dragged it into the recycle bin on my desktop, I would lose all my hard work.  So while what we see may just be icons to help us on our way, we still need to take them seriously even if we are prepared to accept that they may not represent objective reality.

We construct what we see.  Our world comes from within.  If we didn’t taste sweetness or bitterness, we didn’t smell roses or rotting meat or we didn’t hear music or screams would these stimuli exist at all?  So if we don’t look at something, is it actually there?

Classical physics would back the idea that we see a truthful portrayal of objective reality as many of the laws it is based on require that.  But remember that the mode of perception that was used to create the laws of space and time is the same mode of perception in question here.

If it turns out that our eyes don’t see truthful objective reality then the laws of space and time are in question as they were created under false pretenses.  

We only have to look at what we are starting to learn in the quantum realm to see that the classical physics and classical ideas of perception are wide open for debate.  

Electrons hold states called superpositions until they are observed or measured.  This means that they can be in one of two configurations – spin up or spin down – until it’s position is confirmed by an agent observing.

Think, also, about how your perceptions of things change depending on your requirements.

If you saw a huge plate of your favourite food when you are hungry your neural activity feeds you messages of fitness that tell you this is exactly what you want.  Now think about how you would feel about that same large plate of food if you had already eaten three of them. It is exactly the same plate of food but the messages regarding the fitness it will provide to you have changed considerably.   Your senses are working together to feed you information regarding the fitness to yourself of what you see rather than just an objective truth of what is there.

Looking at the image above, this is an illusion called the Necker Cube, named after Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker.  Look at the face of the cube marked with a grey edge. Is this face on the front of the cube or at the back? We all know it’s neither.  The cube is two dimensional so it has no front or back but you have a flip in conscious experience each time you view it one way then the other.  Neural activity is feeding you information about what you see dependent on how you choose to perceive it. Even the fact that you see the cube as 3D although you know it is a flat two dimensional image.

Perception of depth or distance also something that helps us to perceive the fitness or lack thereof of what we are looking at.  If you see some water right next to you and more water 200 metres away you are being given the information that the water right next to you will require less energy exertion by you to get something to drink than the water 200 metres away.  Perception of depth also helps us to distinguish the difference between things that are small or things that are far away. Our sense of perception can be easily fooled, though, by things like 3D glasses and holograms which, with a few simple hacks, can make us perceive depth from flat 2D images.

Depth, distance or a third dimension is even being brought into question by the theories of physics.  The holographic principle theorises that our perception of the universe is mathematics encoded on a boundary that surrounds the entire cosmos.   This is quite difficult to envisage but it appears to work mathematically and ties in better with quantum theory than the classical theory of the universe.

Quantum Bayesianism or QBism is another philosophy of theoretical physics that takes an agent – an individual like you or me – to be the central concern of the theory and their actions and experiences dictate their own perception of “participatory realism”.  Quite literally stating that everything we see is manifested from within. Or Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis in which he theorises that we are all living in a computer simulation. There are plenty of learned people who are confident to assert that our perceptions are not telling us the truth. The old classical Einstein theories of space and time could be finding their way into the history books as quantum physics and philosophy open up new ontologies and hypotheses.

True or not, I like the idea that reality is not what we think it is.  It opens up new realms and possibilities that are not there if we glue ourselves to traditional understandings of how things work. It’s easy to overlook things that we take for granted like being conscious or using our senses to navigate through life.  There is so much mystery and intrigue there that to not think and hypothesise about these mechanisms makes life seem much less interesting and lets us get bogged down with the mundane when there is so much magic and crazy unexplained phenomena that could easily provide a lifetime of interesting discussion and debate.

“It is my supposition that the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine”  

John B S Haldane

“The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you”  

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Too Much Choice

Back when Steve Jobs first told us that we could have a thousand songs in our pocket it seemed like a music revolution.  I suppose it was.

I bloody hate when you’re in a room full of people, telling you to put some music on, and you stand staring blankly at Spotify unable to decide what to play, and sometimes even worrying that I play a few favourite songs too often, when the choice available to me is (give or take) about thirty million songs!  Or when a customer asks,

“Is this all the washing machines you have?”,

while they look at the thirty, or so, on display or when you decide to buy a new pair of shoes or a new set of pans.  There is an infinite array of stuff to buy, download, eat, listen to, watch, smoke, drink, date, adopt, shag, marry…etc

On the surface this seems brilliant but a quick flip through any book about buddhism will tell you that a clean uncluttered mind is the path to contentment and, maybe even, enlightenment.   I don’t think we even asked to have this much choice, a lot of it is forced upon us by our culture of nonstop consumption and the need for economic growth.  If there were only a few things out there for us to buy soon everyone would have all that they required and the only necessity to buy again would be when something needed replacing.  This isn’t going to stimulate growth.  We shouldn’t just be buying one item.  We should be buying the item that we like in three different colours and with all the additional accessories that are available to go with it and then when we’ve got better at what ever activity these items were bought to assist us with, we should upgrade the items.  Entry level stuff is no good if your now an intermediate and as you upgrade things become more expensive.  Not so easy to make the purchase now, you don’t want to waste a load of money on the wrong thing!  Enter people like Revoo, Which, Trivago, Trusted Traders and others to help you make the ‘right’ choice.  Is there a ‘right’ choice?  Is it possible to find a washing machine that is custom designed for your specific needs and out of all other the options out there you must to pare it down to this one?  Or is there a song on your IPod that will fit this moment perfectly, if only you could find it?  We convince ourselves that the answer is ‘yes’ and that having every single option immediately available to us will make it easier to find.

The brain, like any other part of your body, becomes tired with over use and by pondering so many choices all the time each and everyday what we are actually doing is fatiguing our brains which eventually exhausts us, makes us angry and, ironically, makes us make bad choices.   This mental fatigue is also what makes you put stupid purchases into your trolley when you are walking around places like B&M where you see things and think,

“That looks like a good idea!”,

even though it is something that you will never use and never wanted.  Our brains are busy enough and throwing a wall of a thousand options at ourselves every time we go looking to buy trivial shit or want to relax with some music is making it do work that is wholly unnecessary and leaves it with less energy for the good stuff.  Is it just coincidence that many times when choosing something we go back to the very first option we looked at?  Maybe instinct is as strong a tool now in modern society as it ever was.  Many animals depend on it.  Maybe we are stifling instinct with too many choices and fear of making the wrong decision in the same way we are stifling our immune system in our over sterile society.   Your instinct learns if you use it regularly and when you make a choice with a positive outcome you get a positive feedback.  The natural reward your brain gives you when you overcome obstacles by yourself.

Having lots of different things to choose from certainly seems great but it has reached obscene levels and is certainly impacting on our mental health and our ability to feel content and happy with the choices we make and – very importantly for some – other people’s opinions of the choices we make.  There is even an argument that people who are given fewer options are more creative as they have to be able to do more with less so as well as making us feel tired, angry, inferior and confused, too much choice can, also, make us less creative.

Soul Music

Do we have a soul?  An internal essence that makes us who we are?  A single self that contains all of our morals, ethics and personality.  Or are we just a calculating machine that functions almost entirely on autopilot and picks from a variety of different selves to suit the requirements of the current environment?  It’s a very human thing to feel like an individual and have control over who we are and what we do but you are not as in control as you think you are.  Your brain is lazy and, given the opportunity, it will always take the path of least resistance.  Rather than looking at hard evidence and statistics on a given subject and forming sensible conclusions.  The right – and fully automated – side of your brain provides intuitive heuristics.  These are short cuts that it uses based on previous experiences you have had of a similar type (intuition is just recognition or familiarity) and, provided the left side of your brain – the bit you control – agrees that there is enough coherence between these shortcuts and the problem at hand, that’s what is offered up as the truth.  It’s a lot like complex versions of the algorithms Facebook or Spotify use to decide what you like  and what might be of interest to you.  If your brain feels cognitive ease (low work load) and the associative coherence is solid, that’s good enough.  It doesn’t matter if actual evidence says otherwise.

If your brain is this lazy it seems unlikely that it is going to carve out a fully functioning, one of a kind self or accommodate an entirely separate spirit or “soul”.  Your morals and ethics are mostly just ideas that appeal to you from various sources such as your parents, teachers, TV, books…etc and these are fluid and change all the time when you find new options that take your fancy more.   Your “self” is just the same.  An ever-changing entity that serves the purpose required at the time.  A famous Thomas Cooley quote says,

“I am not who I think I am, I am not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am”.

When you are around other people the automated right side of your brain is constantly monitoring the situation as it happens and making adjustments.

“Do the people around me seem happy?”, “are they interested by what I am saying?”, “Do I look good in what I’m wearing?”, “Does that guy think I’m chatting his girlfriend up?”, “Do I like the people around me?”, “Those people over there look more fun”, “I’m bored with this conversation, maybe it’s time to leave”.

All of these perceptions are taking place without your control but they are also shaping the person you are at any given moment.   I am not the same person when I am talking to an attractive single girl in a bar as I am when I am talking to a potential employer in an interview or if I am being condescended to by someone who I don’t really like or if I am trying to comfort a frightened child.  You are basically a biological robot who makes constant calculations and adjustments to who you are and what you believe all the time.  This process enables us to mould ourselves to suit the environment and is one of the many reasons we are so much more successful than other animals.

This behaviour is very tribal, dates back a long way and has its roots in our attempts to work our way up the tribal hierarchy by behaving in ways deemed favourable by our tribal superiors in the hope that we might make our way up the ladder of power and gain preferable choices of partners to mate with and earn more influential and useful friends.  We still do it now except it’s usually in the pursuit of “likes” for pictures depicting us having better lives and being more attractive than our peers that we post on social media.

The feeling of having a soul is, most likely, the best explanation we have as to why we are conscious.  Consciousness make us aware of ourselves almost like we are the pilot of our own bodies and minds.  It has been defined variously in terms of sentience awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel wakefulness having a sense of selfhood or soul.  There is, as yet, no solid explanation for it.  It is both the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.  There is certainly a large debate as to what degree other species experience consciousness and because of this we humans consider ourselves to be superior and we like that feeling.  The soul is what makes us different to them.  So much so that we often find it hard to think of ourselves as being animals at all.  Religion has a huge presence in human history and teaches us that our soul was a celestial gift that God gave to man as he created us and that eternal bliss or damnation awaits it after the physical body dies.

I would argue that what we think is our soul is actually just the narrating left side of our brain doing it’s best to make sense of the constant stream of thoughts and information churned up by the automatic right side.  The left side of our brain, as well as maths and logic, handles what is called ‘thinking in words’ where we think about things linguistically which could appear to be another internal entity talking to you.  We literally live most of our lives on autopilot and our brain does nearly everything we require itself.  Seeing colours, recognising objects, having spacial awareness, hearing sounds and identifying them, making us feel fear or joy or hunger, choosing what or who we like or dislike the look of.  It just gathers up information as it goes and pieces it together to form a bank of data that can be accessed almost instantaneously when needed.  The slower left side of the brain that we control gives us the ability to pick through that information, analyse it and form opinions thereon.   It’s limitations would explain why we feel “human” and not like an infallible computer that never makes errors.  There are, however, many new technologies and ideas emerging that allow us to tamper with the human brain doing such things as controlling which neurons are firing by delivering small electrical currents to certain parts of the brain to do such things as curing depression or giving individuals much longer and more intense attention spans to make high stress tasks more easy to do.  These will bring many moral dilemmas as technologically enhanced humans may start to look down on less efficient basic humans and then we really are facing selling our souls to the devil.  If we have one to sell…

Many Minds Operating as One

The 2017 General Election was a really strong reminder of a phenomenon that sprang into my mind first during the 2007-08 recession.

When an event takes pace that engages the whole of the country like a recession, a referendum or an election it causes a strange move in the collective mood – for good or for bad reasons – of everyone.  Social media and the internet definitely accentuate it but you can feel it by talking to people , watching TV,  being at work.  It’s almost like something in the air.

During the recession there was a constant feeling of doom and gloom everywhere you went.   The media told us that the economy has stayed slow and the public are scared to spend money.  As a result of this the public were, indeed, scared to spend money but, I feel, for the majority of them (myself included) they were only scared to spend money because they had heard that everyone else was “scared to spend money”.  People didn’t know why, they just felt it even though fear of job losses and credit crunches were not even a reality for many of us but we were still part of the collective consciousness of paranoia and worry.   This same thing is being felt in the other direction now with Jeremy Corbyn’s “successful” election result and a feeling that we have all banded together and derailed the Tory hegemony.  The mood of the people seems notably lifted now.  A feeling that we’ve all banded together and actually achieved something against the system.  Again though, for the majority of us there have been no real changes in our lives or our wealth or our communities, it is just a nice ambiance of positivity that seems to feel visceral whilst having no actual real-time benefit for most of us.

I like it.  This idea that if we need to we can act as one consciousness, one feeling shared among many.  It’s almost like we all become one like when The  Power Rangers’ Zords all  merged to form one big Megazord.  The sad thing is it never seems to last.  We all seem to quickly separate into separate Power Rangers and go back to our individual ventures as quickly as steam dispersing into the air.  Maybe nationally it’s too big a thing for us all to hang on to with everything else we have to turn our attentions to.  This is why I am a firm advocator of devolving into smaller groups and communities and organising ourselves that way.    Maybe if we work to achieve things collectively in smaller groups these feelings could be a lot more real, a lot more long lasting and a lot more productive.  I think people crave that group mentality.  We all want to feel involved, necessary, functional, liked and, even, loved.  Smaller communities bonding together to achieve together may even create a stronger adhesion on a national scale as we would be asking, already active, groups to bond together rather than just large numbers of totally unattached individuals.

I know that this is already done with local politics but it just doesn’t seem to make any real engaging impact, only really addressing things like where a new car park should be or the lack of a lollipop lady outside the school.  Boring!  It needs to be larger more weighty issues with real feelable consequences for the participators and, as a result, participation increases, more people get behind the same goals and this lovely feeling of being a real cog in a functioning machine will stay and be physical rather than psychological.

Are We Ill or Not?

ill

The process of diagnosing mental illness is generally finding the way in which the sufferer has deviated from what is considered to be normal behaviour.  The cure is then manipulating the sufferer’s symptoms in such a way that they return to compliance of, perceived, normal behaviour, or at least appear to.  Normal behaviour is, in our current quasi-Utopia known as neoliberalism, often psychopathic in its tendancies.  Success and greed are celebrated, to struggle or fail is frowned upon.  I say it is fair to say that “normal” behaviour could be the most severe form of mental illness that there is.

If we look upon ourselves as the animals that we are, how much of what we do in our lives could be considered normal?  It’s surely fair to assume that most forms of mental illness are a healthy and predictable reaction to the environment we live in.  Why would we not feel anxious when we’re down to our last few quid in the bank and the car could break down or we could be made redundant from the failing business we work for or our landlord might sell the house we live in?  Why would we not feel depressed when we see homeless people begging for change in the street or animals tolerating miserable lives so they can become food for us or families drowning while they run for their lives from war zones?

The normality we are supposed to live in is generally a facade created by various forms of media, by companies who want to sell things to us and, of course, by the financially elite CEOs, board members and politicians who need us to comply if they wish to keep being financially elite.  The joy filled families you see shopping for a sofa at DFS on a bank holiday weekend or the girl who always has beautiful flawless skin because she uses the right moisturiser never have to concern themselves with the with the darker sides of modern existence, like we do, because they are fabricated for a purpose and aren’t real.  And, yet, we try to emulate them!  Our whole lives are spent trying to fit into an almost standardised set of criteria that we believe constitutes normality and it’s easy to feel a little alienated if you fall outside those borders.  I’m a single man with no children at 42 years old and although I’m quite happy with that arrangement I definitely feel an appreciable sense of detachment so I can only try to imagine how life must feel if you are disabled or alcoholic or unemployed or homeless or worse.  The mental pressures must be unthinkable and then on top of that many of the people in these kind of situations who are already suffering are mocked, persecuted and made to feel subordinate.

The unsustainability and destructive nature of our modern existences has to play a role in feeding our negative feelings.  While we can enjoy our trappings of luxury and wealth I think every one of us is now uncomfortably aware of the fact that this – while enjoyable – is causing our own inevitable downfall.  The depletion of the Earth’s natural resources, the extinction of many different species of animal, huge amounts of pollution and the increasingly obvious symptoms of climate change that are all directly attributed to us.  How can we not suffer mentally when we know that our very way of life is killing us and negatively affecting everything around us.

I would like to put it to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that nearly all forms of recognised mental illness are just our brain’s natural responses to what is happening around us and that treatments, including medication and therapy, are just patches to gently ease us back on the path of earning and consuming and behaving in a conventional manner.   If you stop for a moment and really think about how we live, what we are happy to tolerate and what we seem able to ignore it is very easy to see how all of us could quite easily slip, mentally, into a world of dread, anxiety, paranoia and depression without too much difficulty at all.

Transcendence

We all know that our cognitive thought processes seem to be disconnected in some way from the actual matter that makes up our physical being and the world around us. We all know that in our heads we still think and feel like the child we used be but feel compelled to become the adults we are supposed to be. Life seems to pass us by too quickly and we reach the point where, even though our minds are still willing, our bodies become incapable of facilitating their instruction. Couple that to the now, increasingly, obvious fact that our world of physical matter is definitely finite and our, increasingly, complex understanding of how this physical world works and how we can manipulate it to our advantage could be accelerating this process, we find ourselves in a bit of a predicament. The imminence of our potential apocalypse seems to be getting ever more real and seems to be becoming unavoidable as the threats we have to face are growing exponentially and have reached a point where they might be too far gone and too large for us to solve.

This could be a terrifying and very real worry or it could be the necessary end to this very simple physical world our minds have created to sustain us while we evolve enough to move to the next stage. The human spirit or soul – whatever we want to call it – is obviously hindered significantly by this short living, decomposing physical form that we all dwell within. A human’s lifetime is very brief and the relative time scale of our mental evolution to this point has also been, relatively, short and it does, now, seem that the constraints of our physical environment are going to kill us. With so much potential still to be realised, maybe this could mean that we are on the cusp of moving to someting much greater. Transcendence. Existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.

No! That’s daft surely!

Think about it. Look at what quantum mechanics is starting to teach us. What we see, hear, feel and smell is a very simplified and subjective comprehension of the energies and forces that are zipping around us all the time. For centuries religion has tried to teach us that our ‘spirit’ goes on to a better place after it’s primitive meat vehicle breaks down. Now it seems like our whole physical environment is starting to break down.

French philosopher Rene Descartes theorised,

“…firmly implanted in my mind is the long-standing opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am. How do I know that he has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now?”.

This led him to conclude that the only thing he did not doubt was his own existence because the reality of doubting and thinking about the reality of his perceptions was confirmation of this.

“I think therefore I am”

The Matrix films were based on this philosophical question.

You only have to look around you to see the crude limitations of our intellect being encased in a shell of biodegradable physical matter. We have to feed it for a start and some people struggle with that! We have to dress ourselves, entertain ourselves, transport ourselves around. We spend most of our time being either employees or consumers. In this current physical environment it is nearly impossible for us to truly experience existence in it’s purest form because of the constraints that stand in our way and the constant servicing that our physicality requires not to mention the incredibly limited time restrictions imposed on us because of the speedy molecular decomposition of ourselves and all of the things around us. The importance we weigh on our physicality is also hindering our mental evolution as we waste processing power on things like our physical appearance, our possessions, our pets, our gardens and, of course, our jobs. It seems entirly possible that our perception of the world around us could be created by our brain and our vanity and materialism is a metaphorical way of us trying to enhance and better ourselves in the only way we know how to in our current situation.

Could it be that the imminent end of our subjective and simple physical perception of what surrounds us is not something to be feared but rather the logical next step in the evolution of our complex, brilliant, inventive and inquisitive minds. Going to work to pay for things that we require to enable us to go to work seems like a massive waste of the potential that this miraculous consciousness, that we all have, is capable of.

It’s time for Neo to unplug.