Mental Representations

I’m in the middle of Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.  It was written in 1979, and it’s making me feel stressed because it challenges a lot of what I’ve learnt and thought about psychology.

What I understood from my previous studies is that there is sensation and there is perception.  Sensation is the light pattern on the retina for vision, and it is involuntary.  Perception is how the brain interprets those input signals to make sense of the world.

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Eyes of a Hococephala fusca Robber Fly (Thomas Shanahan)

The lens of the eye focuses the image onto the retina, but it’s inverted.  That’s okay, textbooks told us when I was young, because the brain inverts it.  “The fallacy ought to be evident,” Gibson writes.  Sadly, because it never really occurred to me before, it really is evident.  It’s obvious that we don’t have eyes inside our brains. We can’t see our own retina, and it makes no difference if the image is inverted or not, because it’s not actually an image.

Gibson argues that we’re fooled by a communication metaphor for understanding our minds.  Because we communicate with each other all the time using signals – images, sounds, and symbols – we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that our brains are doing the same thing when they’re not.  There’s no message that we need to interpret.  There’s no input signal.  There’s no sensation, at least not in the way we’ve been using the word.  There’s only perception.

The consequences of this are profound, and Gibson’s moving on to that.  I’m going to jump ahead and speculate though.  If we’re not interpreting signals, what are we doing then?  What’s the purpose of self-awareness?

I think conscious awareness is not a central function of the mind after all, but a peripheral function.  I think it exists for communication.  Thinking is essential for talking and for understanding the language we hear from others.  I think it’s for group coordination.

Group coordination is possible without language, of course, because lots of species do it.  Language, however, allows specialization.  It allows different members of the group to take charge depending on their particular knowledge in that particular context.  We can have transactive memory.  If this theory is right, then everything we think is for communicating, or for interpreting communication from others.  Functions which do not require communication would not feature in our stream of consciousness.  And what we think and perceive is related to what we need to communicate, not to what is real in any kind of objective sense.  It feels objective because it aligns with what other people are communicating.

Further, subjective events are actions.  If we feel worried, we are doing worry.  If we’re feeling hunger, we’re doing hunger.  We don’t need the conscious awareness of hunger to be motivated to eat. These are actions of pre-communication.  Our conscious awareness is always doing something, just as bodies are always doing something.

The difference between this model and the input-output computational model, is that according to the former, people will feel and think not in response to particular stimuli, but in response to their communication needs at the time.  It’s easy to think of examples where this happens.  You’ve been feeling numb all day, but then you see someone you’re close to, or someone says something kind, and you suddenly experience a wave of sadness and burst into tears.  This is rational according to the communication model, but irrational according to the computational model.

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