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Exploring the brain's role in experiencing

Neural and Behavioral Sciences Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010

Exploring the nervous system's role in experiencing

As is true of empirical inquiry in general, the neural and behavioral sciences are rooted in shareable observations for which explanations can be conceived and tested by further observations.  Unlike many other forms of empirical inquiry, the phenomena of making observations is itself a target of empirical inquiry in the neural and behavioral sciences.  In this session, we will discuss some recent research findings in this area and the possibility that research of this kind will necessitate a change in understandings of the nature and practice of not only research in the neural and behavioral science but of empirical inquiry in general. 

"The gaps between what sensory inputs we experience and what we actually perceive; where does extraneous information get processed away?  How does the brain decide what is important?" ... Alison

Information not only "processed away" (ignored) but added?  Brain as not only filter but constructor

"Belief is a kind of blindness" ... The neuroscience of screwing up

What can/should we do about it?  As scientists?  Retrain the dorsolateral prefrontal cortext?  In ourselves?  In others?  How? 

Background readings:


A discussion summary (Sasha):

Our first seminar focused on exploring the brain’s role in “experiencing”. We discussed why we observe the world the way we do and if it is possible for human observation to be reliable in an empirical context. There are gaps between what we observe and what we perceive. The way one individual interprets their observations and findings is dependent on what is already constructed- the brain is not only a filter for what we see but also a constructor.

One way in which the brain acts as a constructor is shown through the example of the blind spot. The brain fills in and provides a complete picture of what we see, even if we can’t actually see it because of our blind spot. Research on the brain was done to try and determine if, while filling in the image in our blind spot, the brain is actively “making something up” and firing different reaction patterns, or if the brain is not making anything up and there is, instead, no activity when filling in the image in a  blind spot. Researchers found that the brain is actively constructing parts of what we are seeing.

We also discussed the idea that most of what we see all the time is a product of the brain’s construction. When you look at scenery, not only is the blind spot being constructed, but virtually everything around you is being constructed. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps.  One of these other constructions is numbers and mathematics. Numbers are a human made construction, so just like the colors that we see, numbers are also (apparently) not a perfectly objective measurement and so math is not an objective tool.
Our discussion also focused on the definition of subjectivity and objectivity and the ability to “accurately” describe something. Objectivity is perhaps defined as what a particular population; under particular circumstances, agree on to be standard. Objectivity is not distinct from subjectivity but instead it is commonly shared subjectivity. Therefore, most of what we see is subjective. This leads us to the conclusion that there is perhaps no real way to determine “the truth” or “what is out there” since everything is constructed by our brain and subjective to our interpretation. This leads us to finally ask- what is scientific fact and what is the business of science? Is there any value to determining true objectivity or are we OK with living in a subjectively built world?


See forum below for additional and continuing thoughts



mrobbins's picture

Trapped Within Ourselves

  From last week's discussion, I am convinced that there is only the world that exists in our brain. We are each prisoners to our own subjective world of experience. My experience of the world is wholly unique to me and can never be fully understood by another. This experience and interaction with what my brain interprets and interacts with the world outside of my consciousness is my subjective reality. The only universal reality is the experience of experiencing. I believe that experience is the delicate interplay between my biology and conscious soul each interacting with the shortcomings of the other. I can never understand another person’s reality. Perhaps their reality is my fantasy and vice versa. Therefore, I can never fully construct who they are because I am blinded by my brain’s objective intent to construct what only it communicates to my consciousness what I can see, feel, touch, smell, or taste.


 By continually failing to realize the truth of another, I am constantly coloring the possibilities of who I am.  I learn less and less about what objectively exists outside of myself, but I learn more about the way I experience my unique sense of life and reality in general. After acknowledging the impossibility of an absolute external truth it is important to accept the shortcomings of reality and appreciate the strengths of experience itself within the framework of a collective consciousness. In many ways, science is a form of collective consciousness within our society.  The discussion from last class, debunks the infallibility of science as an absolute but provides a gateway into many new avenues thought. It is exciting to me how we are trapped behind ourselves and only become further trapped into who we are when we try to free ourselves from it. Science, when viewed as a collective conscious construct no longer clashes with its objective heir. As a collective consciousness, science becomes an abstract but unifying force to push and discover the awesomeness of the limits of our own experiences and eternally fail to unite them with an impossible Truth, the world outside of our brain.


dshanin's picture



Reading other people’s perspective on an evolutionary viewpoint got me thinking a little bit more, especially in response to question of how many people must agree for something to be objective (assuming we are accepting Paul’s “no true objective” theory). I see an organism’s existence as proof of an unbroken string of generations stretching back millions of years. Every single one of its ancestors must have processed its external environment in an effective enough manner to pass on its genes. Simple probability suggests that sooner or later an error must be made and an organism must perish. The mere existence of so many members of so many species on our planet testifies to the incredible accuracy with which every organism can process its external environment. Thus a failure of “objectivity” would not simply reflect a shift towards subjectivity but rather the elimination of a genetic lineage (imagine a monkey grasping in vain for a vine it erroneously perceived as being within reach, the monkey plunges to the forest floor, paying dearly to keep subjectivity from reaching the next generation).


Totally unrelated thought: I was a bit uneasy with the vigor with which we pulled Descartes into our discussion. We are all very well-informed about neuroscience topics but with the exception of Paul and David (sorry if I am missing anybody else) pretty ignorant of philosophy. I cannot help but feel that references concepts that we do not fully understand can only weaken arguments. I worry that we tend to view philosophy, especially big sexy names like Descartes, with the same awestruck fantasy that most of the population views neuroscience. 

Serendip Visitor's picture

philosophical issues and our new knowledge of the brain

I think you are on to something.
I am one of the 'we' who is well-informed in terms of philosophical writings but very ignorant aboiut neuroscientific topics. I am new to this site but will take your word for most of the readers here.
A lot of what were once burning philosophical questions have been laid to rest with the advances in neurosciences and imaging, eg., the existence of the transcendental ego and how children learn to make sense of the world.
However, Aristotle did have a biological concept of the self and anticipated many of the problems and solutions posed by later (and lesser) philosophers. Much can be learned from studying him. I don't think that the neurosciences will ever destroy philosophy but will restructure philosophical investigation in more productive ways. By the way, some of the 'new' matters raised by neuroscientists have been solved quite satisfactorily centuries ago by philosophers.
What we need is something I think you are suggesting. Psychiatry must be willing to awake from its dogmatic slumber and pay heed to Dr. Kandell and others; philosophers and neuroscientist must similarly have dialogues which might be fruital for both.

LMcCormick's picture

The role of evolution?




I feel that the role of evolution is an important point that we only touched on briefly.  Dan and Bobby discussed the possibility that vision must be reasonably accurate due to evolutionary pressure*.   This made me wonder how evolutionary theory might apply more generally to our discussion.  Why should the question of shared objectivity stand out side of evolutionary pressure?  We know that a particularly critical gene that encodes an essential protein will be conserved throughout evolution – even across species – because the organism will not survive if this gene is significantly mutated.  On the other hand, variation is common, and necessary, in genes that are not so critical to our survival (for example, differences in eye color).  Perhaps this concept applies to how we construct our perception of the world as well.  It may not be necessary for certain stimuli to be perceived the same.  For example, why does it really matter if my red is your blue, or if people experience different taste sensations in response to the same food (as with supertasters)?  Perhaps people really do construct these “realities” differently in their brains because it just doesn’t matter.  As long as we can all see shades, edges, and construct a meaningful and vivid picture of the world, specific colors are not essential to our survival.  On the other hand, we may have evolved mechanisms to “more objectively” perceive stimuli that are necessary for our survival.  For example, perhaps we have a more accurate and consistent representation of the sensations of extreme heat or cold, because avoidance of these stimuli is critical.
            The only way we can know “what is really out there” (or whatever you want to call it) is through collective agreement.  Those that do not engage in this shared objectivity, such as a person with schizophrenia, will be shunned from society.  (As an unrelated point, if a schizophrenic’s “hallucinations” can be controlled by medications, doesn’t this suggest that there is an organic cause to experiencing “incorrect” stimuli and that we have the ability to manipulate it?)  The need to be integrated in society perhaps also creates a selective pressure to observe the world’s stimuli in a unified manner (even if it is not an accurate portrayal of the world).  Without a shared reality society cannot function.  Considering this argument (though I’m not sure I really agree with it), one might wonder how a species that lives a solitary life might have greater inconsistencies in their construction of the world.
*As a side note, I agree with Bobby that the example of a water-strider addresses a difference in the interpretation of visual input rather than the stimuli itself.  I feel that a lot of our discussions have wandered from the main point that our brains construct reality from sensory inputs to a discussion of the differences in interpretation of these stimuli by different organisms (as with the water-strider example) and different cultures (as with the epilepsy example) due to unequal experiences.


Bobby Danforth's picture

A corollary to my first response

Meant as a reply to my first post, but it hasn't gone up, and I am impatient/exhausted.

It should be stressed that scientific accuracy of some isolated data is not any sort of call to action. Philosophies and cultures are dependent upon countless conditions and produce so many different outcomes that they should only be discouraged or acted against when they cause well-verified harm and even then, only in ways that address the specific harm. It is not polite, helpful, just, or even productive to attack ways of thinking simply because they are incorrect along some lines. To paraphrase Engels, “the single service one can do to religion in the modern age is to ban it.”

The complexity of this sort of thing is demonstrated in Paul Farmer’s study of TB and voodoo in Haiti, which overturned the racist assumption that Haitians had poor TB outcomes because they believed it was magic and did not take their medicine. In fact, they believed that TB was magic AND took their medicine, and this understanding was a great asset to future treatment planning. So, it is safe to say that the Hmong are wrong about epilepsy, but this doesn’t mean that they should be yelled at or anything.

Grobstein’s recap suggests that this is much of what he was saying. I would simply add that there are mechanisms that can be verified to support certain group dynamics, obligations and morality, but they are ultimately couched in certain assumptions – e.g. that survival of a group, even all humans, is optimal. Science can be descriptive to these ends but is only prescriptive when we choose to define what is valuable or desirable. If you read both of my really long posts, congratulations, I hope that I have not given you a splitting headache.

Bobby Danforth's picture

Here is my response, and oh boy is it a long one. Sorry.

This was a fun discussion, but I feel that it was hobbled by misunderstandings of one another’s language. Forget what’s “really out there”, I’m not quite sure what we were “really talking about”!

For instance, when Dan asserted that vision must be accurate to some degree due to evolutionary pressure, he used the example that a patch of color that is bridge-shaped to a human must actually be a bridge (and not more river) or the human in question is unlikely to pass on their genes. Professor Grobstein responded that a water-strider can cross water and is not held by that same scruple. This argument comes from a difference in meaning, not perception. It does not address the accuracy of vision in Dan’s example, only whether the interpretation of that visual input is universal. Both the human and the water strider accurately detect the water and the bridge and what affects their action and situation is their species. My recent Philosophy of Mind class has given me some structure with which to look at these conversations and has also lead me to worry that we have neglected the implied content of language, e.g. we are speaking of a human being viewing a bridge at a given time and place under conditions that the individual believes to be standard as compared to his general experience. These are the things that individuals raised in human society understand and accept that are not in the explicit things they say to one another, and must be considered in any examination of perception. These implied caveats would otherwise be identified as the error in perception, which brings us to the example of the chemist who labels colored flasks.

Did Professor Grobstein mean to question our use of labels to describe common perceptions? The word “red” may indeed be misapplied to an object emitting different wavelengths than the ones we commonly describe as red in a room saturated with colored light, but it is still possible to figure out what is happening there if we are fair to the chemist in the discussed scenario. Should we really deprive the chemist of access to different lighting, assume that the chemist has no peers or training that might enable them to recognize the error in color reporting, and so on?

Likewise, I do not see the connection in the ambiguous cases, where our visual perception does not match externally-recordable information about an object. This includes all of the animations and illusions which produced erroneous colors or movement when viewed by the human eye. Again, I am not convinced that this has meaning regarding “what’s really out there” other than to delineate limitations of the naked eye. It doesn’t feel like a good starting point for our eventual discussion of philosophical meanings and individual perspective, the Capital-T Truth. It presents a contradiction, for in being taught these illusions and visual artifacts we were in fact presented with an “objective” reality, or a “more objective” one. The woman is not spinning left or right, but the animated image is moving in a way such that our particular visual system can interpret it in that way. The checkerboard is not continuous through the shadow cast by the cylinder, those blocks are the same shade and our brain simply tells us they aren’t. In showing us that a particular instance of vision is flawed, we are given a more complete and correct understanding of it. How does that do violence to the idea of objectivity?

So, I don't object to the theme of progress – of having more things to know and having better ways to examine things. I believe that these examples unambiguously support that. What I do object to is the contention that there is a useful definition of “what’s really out there” that is also impossible to discover. If it is possible for something to affect us in any way, it must be detectable through its effects, even if in the slightest and least intuitive of ways. We could be brains in bottles, we could be holograms, or we could be made out of lots of tiny bees – but, until we can find a hint that those things aretrue, it is safe and expedient to accept the null hypothesis.

kenglander's picture

Objective subjectivity

I am currently reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Friere, a pedagogical theorist who emphasized the importance of social justice in education. Freire comments on subjectivity versus objectivity in relation to oppression and liberation. He writes, “One cannot conceive of objectivity without subjectivity. Neither can exist without the other, nor can they be dichotomized… Subjectivity and objectivity [are] in constant a dialectical relationship.” He goes on to say that denying subjectivity leads to objectivism, which is ingenuous because it presupposes there is no “internal reality” that differs from what is perceived as “external reality.” However, Freire also warns against ignoring objectivity completely as that could potentially lead to a solipsistic existence and thereby inhibit action (particularly the liberation of oppressed peoples).
Much of Freire’s argument was echoed in class last week except that we did not consider objectivity and subjectivity as existing in a “dialectical relationship.” Perhaps Freire had an easier time arguing his points because he assumed that an objective reality exists. In light of last week’s conversation, I wonder if this argument is still valuable. To me, science embodies the dialogical and dialectical nature of objectivism and subjectivism. Science is not necessarily contained within the laboratory, but instead represents how we manipulate our environment to effect an observable change. While our discoveries may not be universal truths, they help us to navigate our environment and interact with those around us.
In class we discussed the implications of an objective reality and the consequent cessation of science. We did not, however, explore the consequences of accepting a subjective reality (with no objectivity). As Freire points out, a completely subjective reality could result in an egoistical existence that disregards the importance of scientific observation. Without perceived objectivity there can be no progress and just like a world with objective truths, science would eventually stop.

Our perceptions of “reality” are ostensibly shaped by both internal and external stimuli thus creating subjective realities. At the same time, however, societies have created and mandated certain guidelines that establish perceived truths. While these societal truths may not be truths at all but rather objectivistic ideals in a subjectivistic culture, does this mean that they are any less relevant? Instead of arguing about why objectivity does not exist in our world, I agree with many of you and think that it might be more helpful to investigate how perceived objectivity affects scientific investigations and social exploration.     

Claire Ceriani's picture

Differences in Perception

I just read something the other day that was relevant to our questions about how different people may have different perceptions of the same thing.  Languages may have very different ways of categorizing and naming colors.  They may, for example, consider blue and green to be different shades of the same basic color, whereas English-speakers tend to think of them as totally separate colors.  We tend to group varying shades of blue together and call them "light blue" or "dark blue," but other languages have individual words for these colors.  Some cultures put more emphasis on the brightness of a color when they're naming it and consider the hue second, but English tends to classify a color by the hue first.  Such differences in language may change the way things are commonly described.  In the Iliad, Homer describes the sky as "bronze" rather than "blue," referring not to its color, but to its clarity and brightness.  There is  no evidence that the Ancient Greeks had a word for blue.  We tend to think of the sky as the perfect example for "blue," but they didn't classify its appearance that way.


This made me wonder how much language influences the way we perceive things.  Even if we all literally see the exact same colors, we still might interpret them differently based on the way our language groups and names them.  English speakers might think of pink and red as two different, but related colors, but someone else may think of them as just different sorts of red.  Can this different way of thinking about colors actually change the way we perceive them?  I googled this idea and found that there is a theory called linguistic relativity that says just that.  I personally think the theory takes the idea a little far, but it's interesting to consider:

meroberts's picture

week 1 thoughts

I found myself oddly comfortable with the idea that objectivity does not exist and the closest approximation to it is the shared subjectivity of a community or culture. I believe this idea allows for more perspectives to be considered. Instead of a dichotomous right or wrong answer, scientists (and the general population) should be looking to further shared understandings. I don't believe that scientists will ever run out of things to study and I also disagree with the mindset that "if there is no objectivity, there is no point to science". Science is still just as important to the world even when conceding that it might not be objective. What's so important about objectivity, anyway? We can still progress and further widely-held understandings without objectivity. Different perceptions and beliefs are the reasons people set out to explore the world in the first place.

In middle school, I had a science teacher who did not believe that men had walked on the moon. As a 14-year-old, I had serious misgivings about this woman's ability to teach in a modern world. I mean, really?! How the hell can you teach SCIENCE if you don't believe men made it to the moon? Didn't science put those men on the moon? Luckily, she was an Earth Science teacher. We didn't delve into deep discussions about our diametrically-opposed ideas concerning extra-terrestrial explorations. She taught me how many bones there were in the body. I don't know if other cultures/religions believe there are more or less than 206 bones in the adult human body, perhaps that is one piece of cross-cultural objective information. I do know that babies are born with way more bones than adults because they're mushy little things and they need to be pretty flexible before all those bones can fuse together. So if something as endogenous and beyond our control as the number of bones in one's body can change over the course of a lifetime, why can't science? Science is continually evolving. That's the point of science. I think science can only continue to do that with input from people with differing perspectives. Hundreds of years ago, if no one had disagreed with the common belief that the world was flat, we would still be worried about falling off the edge. Science needs subjectivity, it thrives on disagreements. Without subjectivity, there would be nothing left to "discover" or test out.

Bobby Danforth's picture


I would be cautious in which examples you use to advance your point - the idea that man didn't walk on the moon does nothing to contribute to science, nor does it seem to have affected whether or not your teacher was right about other things or helpful to you. (It certainly could have.) Sometimes a person is just plain wrong and their being wrong is not helpful even indirectly!

There is a difference between disagreement founded in different perception of an identical* body of information and the sort of disagreement that Matt Taibbi invokes in The Great Derangement. Moon conspiracies, global warming denial, intelligent design, and countless other ideologies are caged in the budding off of a separate reality with its own fragmented body of fact. They are interesting and useful in a sociological sense, in a conversational sense, but they do not contribute to science simply because they disagree with the prevailing consensus.

*and here I mean to within some margin, obviously no two people will have entirely identical collections of information

EB Ver Hoeve's picture


It seems only natural that, when presented with a concept like constructed reality, people are going to have varied reactions.  I mean for example, if I was to tell my grandma that reality does not exist and there is no real way to determine “what is out there” since everything is constructed by our brain, she would probably cry!  If anything, training in neuroscience should ease the transition into accepting the concept of shared subjectivity.  As reflected in the forum postings and discussion, it isn’t an easy thing to just accept and move on from.  The most significant way that I think we were affected by this discussion was in its question of practical implications and usefulness both for us as scientists and as human begins.  It’s an interesting and intriguing discussion, but like Sasha said, when it comes right down to it, does it really matter that we cannot objectively see and objectively interpret our world?  And like Sara said, how do we negotiate our role as scientists?


I don’t know the full answer to those questions and I think it would probably be useful to continue that discussion.  However, the discussion did get me thinking and today when I was thinking about what I wanted to say in the forum, I decided that I wanted to talk about Avatar.  I am guessing most of us have seen the movie, but if you haven’t, well, you should probably just go ahead and do that.  When David posted, “should we accept the validity of the healing properties of dances and rituals?” I immediately thought about the rituals that happened at the Tree of Souls.  No matter how powerful the tree, if we placed someone who was dying beneath it, we would not expect the tree to give off healing powers.  We don’t believe in magic. But I think that IS where the idea of shared subjectivity comes into play because if we had a set of observations that demonstrated it was possible, we would begin to believe.  Further along in the movie we learn that the “tree” does not fit our definition for your average Willow.  The Tree of Souls is connected to the neural network for all living things on Pandora.  The interesting part is, although that concept is outside our shared subjectivity, it isn’t actually that far outside our understanding of a tree with its connection to the earth, soil, animals, air, etc.  I think this relates to bkim’s comment about how culture affects not what we see, but how we see it.    


And I think all I am trying to say with this is just that yes, as humans, the concept of shared subjectivity is useful because it widens our narrow understanding of right versus wrong.  If reality isn’t stagnant it can be changed, it can be altered, and it can be improved. Just because we don’t have a certain set of observations now doesn’t mean it could never be gathered.  Still, I agree with Sasha and others who acknowledged that the reality we have created, especially for us as scientists, has been extremely beneficial in allowing us to learn and expand our understanding.  So how does it all connect?  


Vadilson 's picture

Nothing is Absolute

After the discussion Monday night I was very pleased with the arguments that had accrued. It seems that a lot of people did not see how our reality or what we perceive as reality is not really there. If our mind fills in the spots where we would usually have a black hole and different species on the planet see color in different ways who am I or you to say that our way of seeing it is better than someone else way of seeing the same object or color.
This discussion does have practical meaning for scientist because in order to get things less wrong we as scientist must understanding that nothing is absolute. This is because as we discussed in class if something was absolute and irrefutable than there is no need for science at that point. There is no need for science at all if everything had been figured out and solved thus the goal of trying to figure something out in a better way is the motivation of all scientists.

aliss's picture

Class reflections

Monday’s class discussion brought up some interesting points.  One word that really stuck out for me was the description of the brain as a constructor.  The use of the word constructor, as opposed to inventor or creator, seems especially significant.  Our discussion centered mostly on the question of reality.  What is real?  How do we know what we perceive is what actually exists?  We saw, using the chessboard and other optical illusions that our brain constructs a large portion of our reality.  However, most of the class, including myself, seemed fundamentally opposed to the idea that what we perceive as reality is not “real.”  However, after further reflection, it seems as though our knowledge of the brain and our instincts are not necessarily contradictory.

The brain may construct our reality, but does it really create our reality?  When the brain constructs a reality, it uses inputs from the “real world.”  Reality is the interpreted electrical impulses that reach our brain from our sensory organs, and our sensory organs get their input directly from reality.  These signals are certainly modified in the brain (like in the chessboard optical illusion), but they are nevertheless a representation of reality.  Our success as a species and as individuals depends on a correct interpretation of reality: if we actually saw the light and dark pieces of the chessboard as the same color instead of interpreting them differently because of shadowing and line segments, we would not be perceiving reality in a way that is useful to us.  Our experience has taught us that chessboards have alternating squares of light and dark, and our brains are using that knowledge to provide us with the most useful information possible.  Our brains may be constructing reality when we see that image, but we are also drawing upon our experience of reality.

Additionally, I’d like to add my thoughts on The Spirit Catches You When You Fall Down.  While I have never read the book, I feel that there is a distinction between differences in cultural perceptions and actual brain functioning.  While we started off in the differences our brain perceives “reality” from direct sensory inputs, this book seems to deal with the way different cultures perceive the same stimuli.  While this does apply to the idea of “shared subjectivity” that we discussed, I feel that the idea of interpreting events in different ways is separate from the way our brains construct realities from given stimuli.


Sasha's picture



Our discussion on objectivity and subjectivity was interesting and it is reasonable to question the idea of being able to find "what is out there" or an objective "truth" considering what we experience and perceive is effectively a construct of our own brain. My main question/comment would be: does it really matter that there is no way for us to objectively see and interpret the world or that there is no way for us to objectively determine some "truth about everything"? Society has managed to accomplish pretty incredible feats from manipulating chemicals to create cures for diseases, to building enormous skyscrapers, to sending people to the moon and back. So, even though we are confined by the constructions of our brains, our society/brains have done a pretty good job of constructing systems- like math, physics, and chemistry, to help us work and grow in this world we live in.

Perhaps claiming that we will never be able to understand or know anything "objective" or find an "objective truth" is not all that valuable because we are still capable of finding "truths" within the society our brains have "constructed". Maybe instead we should focus on finding/determining how our brains develop these constructs and therefore develop a better understanding of how powerful the brain is- maybe that's where the truth "about everything" is?

So I tried to put together a blind spot chart with a random assortment of colors- whatever was easily "clickable" in MS paint. I'm not sure exactly how this will work for the blind spot test considering when i tried to do it i just got a headache. If anyone one wants to try looking at it and saying what color they see in their blind spot that would be cool.


Multi Color Blind Spot

Jeremy Posner's picture

The Subjectivity of Abnormality

 My immediate reaction to the in-class discussion about the fundamental subjectivity of perception and of the standards that we apply to everything from manners to the laws of the universe was to think back to past discussions I’ve been involved with about the subjectivity of the standards applied to behavior, and in the definition of abnormal behavior.  The entire field of mental health revolves around the notion that there are certain standards of normal behavior and that behavior that falls outside of the boundaries of these standards is abnormal, and depending upon the nature of that abnormality and its effects, it may require treatment to achieve a more normal behavioral pattern.  Some attempt has been made to recognize that the standards with which behavior is evaluated are not absolute or objective, the most significant of these (I think) within the field of mental health is the requirement that for any diagnosis of a mental disorder to be made that an individual not only display a pattern of abnormal behavior, but that that behavior negatively impact their ability to function.  This isn’t a complete solution to the problem of the subjectivity of mental health standards in general and to any number of criteria for diagnoses in particular, but it is a clear acknowledgement that the most important component of a mental disorder isn’t that it produces behavior that might be considered unusual but that it negatively impact the standard of living of its owner.

            This is probably venturing into territory that will be covered in next week’s discussion of depression but our standards of normalcy are often not even in line with what might be most “healthy” and certainly not shared across cultures.  Studies have shown that depressed individuals are often more accurate in their evaluations of their abilities and appearance than non-depressed individuals (who have a tendency towards a positive evaluative bias) and there is a fair amount of contention whether the often disproportionate self-esteem and self-confidence that is encouraged in western culture is actually a positive influence.  So the treatment of mental disorders is often something of a gray area conceptually, when you’re not dealing with a very serious disruption in behavior it may be difficult to concretely identify a whether a particular person really is disordered, and the collection of symptoms that define various disorders not only tend to overlap extensively, but may or may not constitute discrete and specific states of disorder.  At the same time, particularly when dealing with Mental Health theoretically, it’s important to keep in mind how much good treatment can do for a person, how disruptive mental health problems can be, and now badly many want help, though that need cannot always be easily expressed.   

Bo-Rin Kim's picture

How is "shared subjectivity" created?

Our discussion last class about defining objectivity as “shared subjectivity” took me some time to process even after class ended because I couldn’t wrap my head around how this shared subjectivity is created. How is that everyone’s unique brains constructs reality in such a way that we can agree on things? When we looked at the rubik’s cube illusion, it demonstrated that we perceived two squares on different sides of the cube with different colors when they were actually the same color. I don’t know what colors everyone else saw so I can’t say that we saw the same exact colors, but I do know that we filled in one square with a darker color and the other square with a lighter shade of a different color. More interestingly, I believe that everyone filled in the square on the darker face of the cube with the lighter color and the square on the lighter face of the square with the darker color. It seems counterintuitive to have filled in the square on the lighter face with a darker color than the square on the darker face of the cube because it doesn’t fit the pattern. However, we all filled in the colors of the squares in this way. How did our different brains know to use edges to fill in the squares in the same way? Not only is the ability to “fill in” innate, but it also seems that what we fill in is also somewhat innately determined. Are we just programmed to perceive things similarly enough to agree on them?

This is not to say that culture and the environments we grow up in do not affect the way we perceive things—they definitely do. For example, experiments done in support of the Whorfian Hypothesis, which argues that language affects how people perceive their world, have shown that Spanish speakers and German speakers, who attribute different genders to different nouns perceive these gendered objects differently. To describe one instance, the word “key” is feminine in Spanish and masculine in German. Spanish speakers described keys to be small, golden and smooth, while Germans described keys as being jagged, heavy, and metal. While Spanish and German speakers may have focused on different aspects of keys, I would argue that they visually processed the same thing: a small piece of metal with a rough and smooth edge. Thus, perhaps culture affects not what we see, but how we see it. Maybe this is why people can agree on “what is out there”—because our brains largely perceive the same things, it’s just that our cultures shape us to have different opinions and thoughts about them.

This is why I am so interested to see how people fill in the missing dot in an array of randomly colored dots—because here, there is no clear answer as to what color to fill in the dot with, and culture and individual perspective would play a large role. If people from different cultures fill in the dot with different colors, it will show that culture not only shapes how we see things, but what we actually see. This would mean that we all have different interpretations of “what is out there” and would bring me back to my original question of how we then all agree on reality.

VGopinath's picture

Subjectivity and Medical Treatments

    Although in class yesterday we seem to have come to the conclusion that there is no objective reality, we also agreed that there is a construct that our culture and community works within.  As we said in class, when we say numbers to each other in almost any American school, we are using the base 10 Arabic numeral system.  There are also more specialized terms that are agreed upon that vary within a larger community- "DC" at Haverford means the dining center, Washington DC in the DC Metro area and Davenport College at Yale.  And while I don't think that any construct is "more right" than another, when a person is functioning within a community, they have to adhere to the standards.  We have chosen how we label different deviations, for example "epileptic" or "schizophrenic."

      I have read the book "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," which Sara referenced in class and David in his post, and I think one key practical element that we hadn't considered is the extent to which the family is a part of American society.  While the Hmong viewed Lia's seizures as messages from God, they lived in the United States and took her to the emergency room where all of our Western technology was used to stop her seizures and treat her medically as our culture would.  If she had these seizures at home, the extent to which we could use our constructs concerning medicine to judge her parents' treatment becomes murky.  But she was brought to an American hospital and an American doctor did what he thought was best for his patient, spending thousands of dollars every time she had an episode.   And I know that this book is read by many medical students in this country but I think they do so more to increase awareness of how other cultures treat diseases and not to teach new doctors that they should allow an individual with epilepsy to go untreated because an equally legitimate perspective on the disease is that it is a form of communication with Gods.  Within each community or construct, we have decided what's real and how we will behave.  This extends to symptoms of schizophrenia that are described as simply having abnormal emotional responses and not knowing the difference between real and unreal stimuli.  As a society, we have decided normal emotional responses and investigate any deviations.  In our culture, people who experience hallucinations, as we define them, are sent to visit a psychiatrist.  Within our community, while we can learn about how other cultures respond to what we view as mental illnesses, we will (and I believe should) respond to them according to our constructs.

meroberts's picture

Equally legitimate?

VGopinath, I think you bring up an interesting point here in your discussion of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: "And I know that this book is read by many medical students in this country but I think they do so more to increase awareness of how other cultures treat diseases and not to teach new doctors that they should allow an individual with epilepsy to go untreated because an equally legitimate perspective on the disease is that it is a form of communication with Gods."

I agree with you that this book is useful when teaching people (especially such objective and rational people as young doctors) about cultural differences and different culturally-influenced approaches to healing. However, the terms "equally legitimate perspective" stuck out to me in light of our discussion concerning objectivity/subjectivity. If within one single culture, or a subpopulation of that culture, there is a common, shared, yet subjective perspective which differs fundamentally from the commonly shared subjective perspective of another culture, are they equally legitimate? Surely one could not be deemed equally legitimate in the other society. For example, in the book, the Lees bring Lia to the hospital down the street from their house during her first epileptic seizure. However, the Lee's do not hold the same belief as the doctors and therefore discontinue Lia's medication on their own terms. Whether the poor treatment adherence is due to language barriers or differing cultural beliefs/perspectives is a highly debated issue which eventually becomes a nightmare for Lia's doctors. However, the point remains that Lia's condition worsened due to poor treatment adherence.

I don't believe that Lia's family would agree that Western medical practices share an equally legitimate perspective of Lia's seizures as their own shamanistic perspective. In fact, I think that it's hard to find any two cultures who do agree that they share an equally legitimate perspective on anything. As discussed in class, a culture's own subjectivity gets in the way of validating, or legitimizing, a different perspective held by another culture.

sberman's picture

Post discussion thoughts-scientists and "shared subjectivity"

Throughout our class last night, I felt an internal struggle between the class conclusion that there is a lack of absolute/true objectivity, and my goal as a scientist of determining and subsequently reporting understandable, experimentally proven facts. The closest we came (in my opinion) to an agreement of objectivity was a "shared subjectivity;" we supposedly can agree what something is or isn't only in a highly defined and agreed upon construct. One of us then questioned, "Whose shared subjectivity constitutes objectivity?"

Given that we are all scientists and conducting research, I feel it is important for us to think about what the lack of ultimate objectivity means in terms of how we plan/perform scientific experiments and then communicate the results of these experiments. Whenever we communicate what we have found, the "shared subjectivity"/objectivity parameters must be taken into account. But are these parameters, and consequently, the objectivity construct, something that is understood or even mostly understood? Or should we as scientists be more explicit about the desired "shared subjectivity," so that are results will be less likely to be misinterpreted? In terms of the epilepsy case that I brought up (the book is entitled "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" and is by Anne Fadiman, for any of you who are interested), it seems that the "shared subjectivity," which is in this case the society in which epilepsy is being analyzed, obviously must be explicitly stated. But is this the norm or exception? 

This discussion has led me to the personal conclusions that even if I view something as completely objective (numbers, for example), I must consider other viewpoints, because nothing is absolutely objective. I also feel, however, that without a constructed reality in which we have at least partially/mostly agreed upon objectivities, it would be difficult for society as a whole to function.

Lastly, I'd like to partially respond to David's post discussion thought and the issue of scientific funding as a determinant of what we as scientists should study. If we are basing what we study on what receives scientific funding, then maybe we should research based on achieving a desired function, not just learning/communicating facts/theories/phenomenons. For example, we would want to learn not why cancer cells divide so rapidly, but how to stop this division. But then, probably the best way to do this would be to learn why the cells divide so quickly in the first place. We're then right back where we started--even trying to determine what we study based on function, we have to go back to "objective" facts- and what are these objective facts? I guess scientific funding isn't all that helpful in telling us what science we should and should not study.

David F's picture

Filling-in and implications of subject/objectivity

I was also intrigued by the question of how the brain would fill in a blindspot surrounded by variable patterns. Would individual differences determine what aspects of the surroundings translated into the blindspot? In the case where the blindspot area was surrounded by dots of various colors, could "color priming" affect the perceived dot, if any, in the blindspot (e.g., after seeing several instances of green dots, would a participant more likely perceive a green dot in her blindspot)? Or could the colors merge, forming something like a vague, brown dot?

Regarding the more general discussion of objectivity, I would also be interested to hear what practical implications people saw of this new conception of what is truly "out there." Preliminarily, I can think of at least three. The first concerns the nobility of the pursuit of science. It sometimes feels like scientists often believe that their studies bring them closer to some profound truth, that there exists some point at which "everything" can be objectively known (a point which might be accompanied by a bright flash of light, or something). But if the conception of objectivity developed today is correct, then this is a useless hope: for every new construct we discover, there will be another construct we will have to develop to explain that one (think: every "smallest particle" we think we've discovered can be divided in two). From this follows a second implication regarding *what* we research. If wavelengths are just as subjective as colors themselves, why have we fallen into the reductionist perspective of truth, where the "most true" description of a thing involves elucidating its smallest components? What is the ultimate aim of researching the miniscule details, other than to make life more fun or for giggles, both of which are strongly subjective aims (and no different than the least "scientific" pursuits, like literature)? Finally, as Sara Berman's provocative example of epilepsy illustrated, doesn't a subjective notion of objectivity alter the way we regard radically different forms of science (the discussion of what constitutes a "mental disorder" aside)? If numbers are all subjective, and thus relative, too, then what's the big deal with statistics? Should we accept the validity of the healing properties of dances and rituals, and in what sense?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain as constructor and its implications?

Interesting conversation.  Thanks all.  Lots of bits and pieces to follow up on in various ways, in further conversations and elsewhere.

I too am curious about what would happen in the blindspot case if one used multicolored dots, spatially patterned in various ways and spatially unpatterned.  That's a pretty easily doable experiment, maybe we'll do it as an extension to the Serendip blind spot exhibit.  I'd also be interested in finding out what cultural differences there might be in filling in the blindspot in the case of more complex image arrays.  And to what extent that depends on experience.

I"m intrigued more generally by the movement toward replacing an understanding of "objectivity" as "what is out there" with "what works in our context" and "what we can agree works in a shared context," with the notion of "objectivity" not as distinct from "subjectivity" but rather as objectivity fundamentally rooted in subjectivity (see The objectivity/subjectivity spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too).   And found useful the Descartes connection.  Yes, Descartes recognized that empirical observations were not a route to "Truth," and it was partly for that reason that he separated things into material and spiritual with the latter having access to "Truth."

Is this all "words," all "philosophy"?  Or does it have actually have practical implications for us as scienitists, as humans?  That the conversation originated in scientific observations seems to me relevant but I'm not sure we succeeded in grappling successfully with the practical implications issue.  No problem, it remains on the table to think about.  And I suspect it will come up again in the semester as we talk about the array of topics on our schedule.

For anyone interested, a discussion among faculty triggered from more or less the same starting point is documented at Working without mirrors, glassy essences, or indubitability.   

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