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Biology 202
2001 Second Web Report
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Looking for the "I" Function among the Visual Processes; Contemplating its Character and Possibilities


Oliver Sacks wrote a case study about a sixty-seven year old painter who lost his color vision as a result of a car accident. His vision was such that everything appeared to him as a black and white TV screen. After numerous tests his doctors could find nothing wrong with his eyes and concluded that he had a rare cerebral dysfunction form of achromatopsia caused by visual cortex damage. Mr. I, as Oliver Sacks called him, retained an awareness of where color should be. His color perception was replaced with a sharp acuity for tones of grey to a degree not known to color-sighted people or congenital color-blind people. He felt uncomfortable because he saw only "awful and disgusting" shades of grey where the color should have been. As an artist, his response to the loss of a fundamental faculty was to shun social and sexual intercourse, because everyone, including himself, looked like "animated grey statues". Food became disgusting because a black tomato suggested death to him. His awareness of where the color should be because of all the grey shades and tones was so distracting that he began to try to surround himself with black and white-white rice, black coffee, ... even redecorating parts of his house in black and white (1).

Recent research into visual perception has revealed that color recognition requires a minimum of three sub-systems to be functioning: Physical receptors (the retina cones), wavelength-sensitive cells (apparently located in an area of the brain known as V1), and a higher order color generating mechanism (located in the V4 region). These three processes need to work in harmony to yield the perception of color (1).

Tests revealed that for Mr. I, the higher order color generating mechanism in V4 was not working. His other two processes were operating perfectly. Because of his two normal vision processes, Mr. I was able to judge variations in grey by the comparative wavelength of the reflected light without being able to see the actual color. Mr. I could also see textures and patterns that are normally obscured to those of us because of their embedding in color. Oliver Sacks puts it this way:

"His brain damage had made him privy to, indeed trapped him within, a strange in- between state-the uncanny world of V1-a world of anomalous and, so to speak, prechromatic sensation, which could not be categorized as either color or colorless" (1).

Mr. I gained consciousness of his V1 processes when he lost his V4 processes. His "I" function was now conscious of autonomic body processes that color-sighted people are not conscious of.

Color-sighted people, although aware of color produced by the nervous system, they are not consciously aware of the textures and patterns (output) that the V1 visual area produces. This example of shifting "I" function behavior (for Mr. I, his "I" function no longer able to be used with V4 color perception had shifted to consciousness of his V1 processes) "is an interesting place to ponder the question asked by Crick and Koch in their paper Consciousness and Neuroscience, "It is probable that at any moment some active neuronal processes in your head correlate with consciousness, while others do not; what is the difference between them? Is there anything special about the neuronal correlate of consciousness-their type, connections, or way of firing? (2). Does consciousness travel along with the action potentials as they cruise along the membrane or is it a center in the brain that has input from certain body processes and then gives output to body parts? If it's a center in the brain, how come we haven't located it? Maybe it saturates the whole brain structure and is therefore hard to pinpoint.

Looking at the disfunction of Christopher Reeve, a nervous system path was damaged and so he cannot consciously control his voluntary body muscles. Was this a nervous system path that consciousness flowed up and down? Or is it just a case of the neurons not being able to travel the damaged path and report or receive commands from the "I" (Box) center in the brain? At this time I intuitively think that the "I" function, whether active or passive, is both throughout the body and a headquarters in the brain, and the body only chooses to be conscious (active"I" function) of the most important processes. The idea of consciousness being in the body and the brain would also work well with the shifting "I" function phenomena of Mr. I. The body could perhaps apply the "I" function wherever it really wanted it to, because it is everywhere, just passive in some places and active in others. Of course none of this argument for the "I" Box being in the brain and throughout the body can prove that the "I" Box is not just in the brain. But can it be disproved? These two possibilities exist.

In order to ponder the character of the "I" function further than what it looks like neurologically speaking and where it is, the question can be asked-what are some of the behaviors of the "I" function and can we consciously control it? Can a master be a master of itself? Focusing on "I" function's behavior, an explanation for the difference of color-sighted people and Mr. I, in their "I" function correlation with the textures and patterns produced by V1, could be that the "I" function allots its active state (awareness) to the total information (the most important) received rather than the parts of info received, so therefore we normal sighted people do not pay attention to the textures and patterns, only to the finished color. In the case of visual consciousness, the biological usefulness of it is to produce the best current interpretation of the visual scene (2). Mr. I had consciousness of his total information, textures, patterns and shades of grey, which was produced by V1. I guess this selective attention of consciousness to the most important information is sort of like driving-we do it even though we do not pay attention to the minute judgments like--I will press the brake now (output). We just pay attention to the total picture of driving and let the almost autonomic details go unnoticed. Evolutionarily speaking, this would make sense because awareness of only the most important processes would conserve energy and allow for the best functioning.

Could there be conscious control of selective attention of consciousness? Can the master be its own master? Most people have not experienced this but then most people have never tried. I have never tried to become conscious of my kidney's nephrons filtering my urine. Perhaps if I needed to become aware of this autonomic function, I could. Once I had the opportunity to release myself rapidly from decades long chronic pain via conscious concentration of visually releasing emotions from a certain pained part of my body. This is visualization. Through visualization says Candace Pert, a Research Professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Center, we can increase consciousness to increase the blood flow providing more nutrients and oxygen to carry away toxins and nourish the cells. She claims:

The more conscious we are, the more we can "listen in" on the conversation going on at autonomic or subconscious levels of the bodymind, where basic functions such as breathing, digestion, immunity, pain control, and blood flow are carried out. Only then can we enter into that conversation, using our awareness to enhance the effectiveness of the autonomic system, where health and disease are being determined minute by minute (3).

If consciousness is brought to certain diseased parts of the body, it may have the power to control body processes to heal, something the body strives to do anyway. This could be a very practical reason to study consciousness.

And so this delving into the "I" function behavior of Mr. I, the color-blind painter, the only thing really known is that there was a shift of consciousness as his "I" function, no longer able to be used with V4 color perception, became aware of his V1 processes--awareness of all the grey shades and tones and the patterns and textures that are produced in this cerebral area. But the questions it raises are important, scientifically and philosophically, as one continues to explore the abyss that develops in the apprehension of consciousness. .

WWW Sources

1) Rapport Article by James Lawley. , This is a report on Oliver Sack's book called An Anthropologist on Mars. This article focuses on one of the essays in the book called The Case of the Colour-blind Painter.

2) A Review written by Francis Crick and Christof Koch. , A Review with a purpose of setting out an approach for neuroscientists as they investigate consciousness.

3) An interview with Candace Pert , An interview with Candace Pert by Daniel Redwood on her book called Molecules of Emotion-The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine.