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Week 11 - Neurobiology and Behavior

Paul Grobstein's picture

So, the "picture in the head" can be/is "made up", and may be differently so in different people.  Moreover, its made up without the "I-function" knowing it.  We'll talk this week about where that picture is, and what its good for, and what that tells us about the I-function.  Thoughts about any of that ... or anything else on your mind/brain this week ....

Stacy Blecher's picture

Body Dysmorphic (Dis)order

All of our class discussion about the image of what is “out there” versus the image in our head got me thinking about body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).  Individuals who suffer from BDD have an image of themselves in their head that does not match what the majority of others see in their head when they look at the individual.  The BDD patient perceives themselves to be physically defective in some way, yet even a thorough medical exam cannot find any medical cause for concern.  But is this person really ill?  Many consider BDD to be a mental disorder and write off BDD patients as being crazy and having a warped sense of reality.  However, after these past few classes, I’m pretty sure that there is no such thing as reality –or if there is, it is by no means a universal constant.  If reality lies in the eye / mind / brain of the beholder, then why are these individuals regarded as having a mental handicap? Just because the majority of people produce a similar image in their head when they look at you doesn’t mean that you are disabled if you perceive yourself differently when you look in a mirror.

I have read some articles and web pages that claim BDD could be caused by an imbalance of serotonin in the brain.  Since serotonin is known to regulate emotions (among other things), I wonder if our mood determines the image that is crated in the head.  This seems to make sense to me.  I know that if I have been having a bad day and feel bad about myself, when I go home and look in the mirror I don’t like what I see.  On the other hand, when I’ve had a really great day (and probably have higher levels of serotonin) I don’t mind looking in the mirror.  Another hypothesis is that serotonin, in addition to regulating emotions and moods etc, serves a purpose in the visual system that we are unaware of.  Yet, regardless of the cause of this “disorder,” the fact remains that what these people see in the mirror is reality –it’s their reality.  So, maybe the image of their nose looks different in their head than it does in yours….Your image of red is different than everyone else’s in the world, yet no one has diagnosed you with a mental disorder.  What’s the difference?

urbrainondrugs's picture

Just a pondering.

I think there is a large difference between those that have an imagination and those that are imaginative. I think those that are imaginative can think ouside the box of the things that they believe or assume to be true, while those with an imagination or wild imagination think of crazy things that they covet or think of alternate realities for things that are within the realms of their beliefs. Such as it is easy to imagine how life would be if you were a millionaire and how you would spend these millions. It is even within the ability to imagine how life would be like if you were inside a spaceship. These are within things that you believe are possible because you've seen these types of things on tv. However someone who is imaginative is someone who can use their creativity on a new level, and instead of seeing themselves in these situations, will come up with ways to actually become a millionaire or build a spacecraft. They think outside of the box and the things that already pre-exist in their world of assumed "real things". Imaginative people can even think outside of something so crucial and real in our world: gravity. Imaginative people are not hindered by their beliefs while the imagination normally is.

Cayla McNally's picture

Just the Way It Is

I think that whether we like it or not, we're stuck with the 'realities' that we have to deal with for as long as we are able to perceive our surroundings. I'd like to think that there is some legitimate reason as to why we do not truly see what surrounds us; if we were not able to function like we are, our perception abilities would be different. However, I am curious as to how people from different developmental stages, both currently and over a large span of time, viewed reality, and how it differs from the way we do, if it differs at all.

AnnaM's picture

Is This Really So Mind-Blowing?

There's been an awful lot of discussion of reality in our class for the past few weeks, and how everyone's reality may be the same or different. For many people, the idea that their reality may differ greatly from other people's seems deeply disturbing. Me, though...this idea doesn't terribly new or shocking at all.

Think about it. From the time you're very little, in elementary school, you learn simple facts about what animals can perceive and humans cannot. Dogs have a greater sensitivity to and awareness of smell than humans do. Bats can produce and perceive sounds at wavelengths far beyond the range of human hearing. So on and so forth. A little later, you start to learn about differences between humans that could alter perceptions. Some people are nearsighted or farsighted and can't perceive objects clearly without glasses. Some people use hearing aids. Some people use canes, or walkers, or wheelchairs. The word "reality" isn't used in any of these discussions of difference. But the implication is there for sure-people can sense different things from animals, and from each other-and these statements are easily accepted.

Now, enter neurobiology class. Here, the language gets a lot more complicated; we talk about the inner workings of the eye and brain, and the question of reality instead of simply saying "some people need glasses." Deep down, though, these are just the same ideas from elementary school; we've just dressed them up in more ambiguous language to reflect the fact that our reasoning skills are better now, and we use them as jumping-off points for discussion instead of treating them as absolute facts. I have no problem admitting that my reality is not likely to align eactly with anyone else's, because I've been hearing this lesson since I was young, albeit in different contexts. 

marquisedemerteuil's picture

awesome post, way to spice

awesome post, way to spice up the board

lrifkin's picture

Constructing Reality

Throughout this course I have been extremely interested in memory. During the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of reading numerous articles on “normal” memory, problems with memory, different types of memory, how memory effects behavior, and memory in different people. This week, I read an extremely intriguing article on a specific type of memory loss known as dissociative fugue or dissociative amnesia.

Dissociative fugue, or dissociative amnesia, is a condition in which the brain suddenly and unexpectedly incurs severe memory loss. While the cause may sometimes be due to head injury, stroke, viral encephalitis or temporal lobe epilepsy, it is often based on a psychological cause (such as post traumatic stress disorder or depression). These cases are jarring and scary as many individuals simply stand up and walk away one day, as people without a past or an identity. However, as one playwright describes in the New York Times article I read (, “You never lose your memory. It’s always there. It just falls out of the file cabinet.”

These cases astonish and bewilder me, as it seems that the brain has the ability to literally misplace significant amounts of memory for short periods of time. In these cases, individuals must reconstruct their realities until they are able to retrieve their memory.

csandrinic's picture

Top-Down Processing

I have slowly come to terms with the fact that the images that we take for granted as being a part of the exterior world are in fact constructions of our brains. However, like others, my problem with this system is that there apparently is no use of the I-function. I find it inconceivable that the images that we create within our brains are completely exempt from all influence of the I-function. Part of my problem comes from knowledge of what scientists call ‘top-down processing’. Whereas bottom-up processing suggests that information is received first from, say, the retina, then ‘scanned in’ and processed through the hierarchy of the visual system (according to this model, when one is reading, one perceives every letter, organizes the perceived letters into words, and then organizes the words into phrases, clauses and sentences.), the theory of ‘top-down processing’ posits a non-linear view of the process in which we comprehend what we see. According to these theories, readers do not read every word, but sample the text, make hypotheses about the next word to be encountered, etc. In my opinion, this theory seems to be very accurate and makes a lot of sense. Think about it; the astounding quantity of incoming information makes it impossible for the visual system to process all of it. It only makes sense that the higher level cognitive processes (those which deal with constructing meaning) would regulate this information. In order to do so, however, the incoming information must be sampled on the basis of our expectations, previous knowledge, and what has already been processed. What role does the I-function play in our previous knowledge and expectations? If it does play a role, could it be said that the I-function IS a functional element of what we perceive? Perhaps it is first important to discern the exact ways in which top-down processing influences bottom-up processing, and vice versa. 

Claire Ceriani's picture

I think it would be very

I think it would be very confusing if the I-function were always aware of how the brain was reconstructing reality.  I can’t imagine going through the world always thinking about how I should perceive it.  It would be far too distracting.  If the I-function were directly involved in the process, we’d always be occupied with how we should be viewing the world.  And we’d probably always be questioning whether or not we were making the right choices of what to see and what not to see.  What if everyone chose to “fill in the gaps” differently?  True, we don’t know for sure that we currently fill them in a similar way, but I assume that since it’s automatic, there is a certain amount of pre-programming involved.  We may not all see the exact same picture, I think we probably see similar ones.  But if the I-function were involved, would it be possible to choose to construct very different pictures?  Would anyone be able to communicate their perception of reality to others?

biophile's picture

Interactions between things change the things themselves

At times I wonder why people find the fact that the outside world is most probably different from the world we perceive to be surprising. I mean, think about information transfer at a very basic level, like converting an old record to a CD. The music on there will not exactly be the same because you lose something in the process; the music is changed. But that's alright, because now it's in a usable format. Of course the picture we have in our minds will be different; think about all of the elements involved in sense-perception and information processing. The interactions and loops and inhibitions and excitations going on are mind-boggling. How can we ever hope to map them and neatly explain why someone views reality in the way that they do? I'm actually kind of surprised by how much we can agree on. Granted, there's no way to view the world through someone else's eyes, but there is a general consensus on how humans view the world. Given how complex we are and how much could go awry in the process of our development and functioning, I wonder why more people do not have physiological differences that result in a radically different way of interpreting reality. This isn't to say that the differenes we see between individuals and between cultures isn't interesting, though. I just wonder what social or physical factors really matter in the process.

LS's picture

Reality Evolution

This is slightly off topic but last week I went to a lecture by John Cacciopo at Haverford about loneliness and isolation.  In a world of technological and medical revolutions people are living longer and the world is becoming a much smaller place.  However, with this business executives are being moved around the world to benefit productivity with out any thoughts about isolation.  In this research Cacciopo found that lonely and isolation are correlated with depression and that lonely and isolated individuals have a shorter, worse life.  However the most interesting part of the lecture I though was that Cacciopo thought that loneliness was a evolutionary construct.  We are organisms whose offspring require a long maturation period in which we need to care for them.  Evolutionarily in a harsh environment it is better and more advantageous for survival if one only has to feed and protect her self without sharing.  However, evolution is based on the reproduction of our genes, not our bodies.  Lonelyness is adaptive because it causes us to miss our offspring so that we do care for them and ensure our genes survival. 

I think that in the same way that loneliness is fitting and evolutionary adaptive our sense of reality is adaptive, this is stretch but the body does not do anything with out a purpose.  We don’t have extrasensory perception, and we cannot perceive all sorts of things around us, because the information would bombard our system and it would be horrible.  I am very interested in the way our brain makes up for things but no so worried as to what we are missing.  If we are so worried about what we are missing then we will never be able to enjoy what we do have.

dmckeever's picture

Is hallucinating evolutionarily beneficial?

In response to many of the posts here, I am not disturbed by the fact that we are not experiencing the world as it "truly exists" because frankly, I am existing happily without that knowledge. I am able to interact with others sufficiently and appreciate the world to an extent with which I am happy. But, I too am curious as to why our brain creates images and fills in gaps in the world that exists. How is it beneficial to our existence? There must be some evolutionary benefit/significance for it to have survived so many years of development and change. Maybe everyone should think of it this way: our bodies generally know what is good for themselves, whether we agree or not. So, maybe the world as it is is not something we can handle. Maybe there is too much input for our nervous system to take on and this act of creating almost hallucinations is actually a filtering process. Maybe, just maybe, we aren't meant to see reality because we just can't take it. And maybe, we can be happy with what we know and what we have because "why fix what ain't broke?"

Kristin Jenkins's picture

I'd have to agree. Is it not

I'd have to agree. Is it not enough to see what you see and live your life based on it? We get along just fine, do we not? I mean, it's cool and interesting that we can make these theories and projections about how our brains are messing around with our image of the world, and how other people have different images, but in the end, what does it really matter? Dont get me wrong, I love to think about this stuff-- my mind can seriously run in circles over these topics until I feel dizzy-- but I feel like its ultimately non-generative (to use an Evo/Stories term) in the real world.

x's picture

Can You Reprogram Someone's Sex Drive?

I know we haven't exactly addressed this issue in class, but it's been in the news so much lately that I feel compelled to bring it up. There's been a fantastic (in my opinion) new study that basically compared the age in which students who had abstinence-only education first had sex to the age students who had contraception-friendly sex education first had sex. Surprisingly (to some), there was no age difference in these groups (14.9 was the average age of losing virginity).

While conservative politicians are calling for people not to make "sweeping generalizations" based on this study, it's pretty clear that any attempt to indoctrinate people against a basic human instinct has very little contructive impact. Even when powerful institutions such as religion and morality come into play, the trend seems to be that people end up having sex before marriage no matter what.

That being said, what does this mean for any attempt to reform human nature? Is the brain really capable of change without drugs (ie antidepressants) to induce this change? How much will power do we really have?

michelle's picture

We've Got the Power to Change

That is quite interesting, however, I believe the study should not have focused on when the students initially started having sex but whether the students were having safe sex or not. One of the teaching approaches focused on abstinence and clearly failed in its purpose because the students were still having sex. Moreover, they were having sex soon after, if not during the time they were being taught to avoid sex altogether. The contraception-friendly approach wasn’t instructing the students to avoid sex, but to have safe sex. Therefore, the fact that the students were having sex did not go against what they were taught. I found an article referring to the study because I was curious to read more about it. It has a link to the published study. For others who are interested:

One of the researchers DID mention that, "… the second part of the story that I think is equally important is that we find no evidence that the programs increased the rate of unprotected sex," which affirms that both programs failed in their mission. What they are advocating now is a comprehensive sex education program where abstinence makes up only a small portion.

To add to your thoughts about human nature, I do believe that we are biologically driven to crave sex. It makes tremendous evolutionary sense. However, I do believe in will power. I believe we have the power to overcome biological signals. We can, if we really want to, abstain from eating and ignore hunger pains. There are stories of mothers subjecting themselves to normally intolerable amounts of pain to rescue or protect their children. Despite all of our recent talk on how we have little control over our behavior, I do still believe humans have to ability to override biological demands should feel strongly enough about the cause. What we have to do first is convince our brains to comply. For example, I've spent years trying to convince my father to quit smoking- giving him statistics on lung cancer, etc. However, he never actually quit until he personally made the decision to do so. Our brains will only comply if it is our OWN conscious decision, not that of others, because only we know what's best for ourselves. Therefore, maybe the only thing we can do is present all the facts to the students and hope they decide for themselves to make appropriate sexual decision.

W.D's picture

I find Steph's point to be

I find Steph's point to be quite interesting because I've heard this in the news as well and I've been trying to figure out if this result in light of our class would insinuate that as humans we are somehow 'prewired' to have sex at an early age, or that something in the culture (inputs) makes this possible? But when I realistically thought about it, many people don't have sex at an early age, so maybe its not a matter of brain 'prewrire' after all but rather of 'will'. And I guess that's where many neurobiologists would disagree with me. I believe that humans are born with a blank slate and then sociolize into human beings. That said, I will argue that 'will' is something people acquire as they grow. One can acquire as much or as little as one's experiences allow. Holding this true, then teenagers are likelier to have less will, therefore putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to standing up to societal and/or peer pressures. Thefore, the problem is not necessarily sex drives, but our longing for acceptance and belonging. No matter how much money the government pour into this, people; especially teenagers, will still fall prey to peer pressure in the name of acceptance and 'coolness'.

alexandra mnuskin's picture

Reality and the I-function

So after thinking about it for a long time I think that actually I’m quite comfortable with what we’ve been learning these past few weeks. I can accept that the brain makes up the picture in the head…that there is no one picture, but rather a symphony of perception. I am also comfortable with the idea that because things like color, sound and even shape are not intrinsic properties of objects but rather a creation of our brains--every one’s perception of reality is a little different.

The question that remains…the aspect that bothers me a little…is the fact that the brain does all of this completely independent of the I-function. What then is the I-function for? Is it there at all? And if it is there…what does it actually do? Earlier on in the course I thought that eye function was responsible for things that we couldn’t actually see…like abstract concepts or dreams…things that our senses don’t actually perceive but that we will into existence by the power of our imagination. I’m thinking of monsters, fairy tales, philosophical concepts, perhaps even short things that we have never seen, only imagined. It seems however that even this ability doesn’t really have anything to do with the I-function.

In my research for my paper on synesthesia for example I came across an account of people who experience colored synesthesia but who are in actual fact color blind. When they look at numbers they see them in color, even though their retinas have never been able to register the wavelengths that would produce a certain color in their minds. It would seem that their mind is creating the concept of color—color that has never been experienced from any outside source. And all this independent of the I-function. I guess for me this is a little disturbing, the fact that the mind cannot only create things like color from certain inputs like wavelengths, but that it can create color all on its own with out any inputs and without the I-function’s involvement.

RachelBrady's picture

Cultural impact?

Most of the imaging process is done without the use of the I-function; in fact the I-function usually has no control over our visual experience. If you examine the sensory “priorities” across cultures, you’ll see that there are commonalities within a culture, but not necessarily across cultures. There are certain visual, auditory and olfactory cues that we abide by, that other cultures my not. This can’t be a result of an individuals desire to conform to their culture because the I-function is not involved in many of the processes, such as imaging, that would cause them to perceive things in a different way. Nor can this be a result of natural selection which selects for favorable morphologies and not new structures and functions. Can culture, then, have a large enough affect on the brain so that there are profound similarities among its individuals, but not between those of other cultures? Could culture propel evolution of the human brain, where individuals can pass on the accumulated wisdom to their offspring? This is obviously just speculative conjecture, but it’s interesting to think about the factors that us so distinct, to the point where we experience different realities, and simultaneously very similar.

Sarah Harding's picture

This is a very interesting

This is a very interesting point. Would this mean that in cultures where auditory inputs are more prized than visual, that the filled-in gaps would be different? Theoretically speaking, in a society that places no emphasis on visual inputs, would those gaps in our vision be left as gaps? Would there be no desire to fill them in to a create a reality if their reality in based in something else (for example, a reality that is sensorily based in auditory or kinesthetic insputs)? Rachel's questions about natural selection are curious....could sensory preferences actually lead to evolutionary change in the name of natural selection? If that were the case, couldn't we run the risk of phasing-out one of our senses? For example, if our bodies/cultures proclaim that visual inputs are the key to survival, would we place less emphasis on our olfactory system and eventually render it useless?

francescamarangell's picture

Why do we see?

I read an article in the New York Times from last year about the development of vision in primates. The article was attempting to answer the question: how does the evolution of vision in primates correlate with their survival needs? Primates evolved over the years to perceive clear, colorful details and boundaries of objects in space. They also have depth perception and can register motion. For years scientists have asked why. What aspect of vision do primates find the most useful? For a while there was a theory which said that primates used their visual perception of motion and color and the ability to clearly distinguish objects as a way to find food. Fruits and moving insects were more easily identified. Their hand-eye coordination used to grasp food was fueled by the input-output feedback loop of vision.

Recently studies were conducted which analyzed the brains of primates from varying eras and their results offered new suggestions. They found that areas of the brain that correlated to depth perception, identifying camouflage and forward sight to be more highly developed than those correlating to visually guiding and grasping for food. This suggests that searching for food is not the developing component of vision for survival of primates but the identification of distant and camouflaged objects, such as predators is.

I found this article interesting because it tried to apply an evolutionary purpose to vision and why we see. In class we have been talking a lot about how we see, but less about biologically why it is that we see. Is our vision purely a tool of survival, whether it be for food or to avoid predators? Or are there other intentions that we are unaware of such as a component to vision that is purely for pleasure or balancing or perceiving the time of day?

eshuster's picture

What does color say about you?

I still haven’t gotten over the topic of color. After reading one of the comments in the forum about who we really are and thinking about reality, I came across color. It seems that color isn’t what we think it is? Yellow apparently isn’t yellow. Blue isn’t blue. It all depends on your perspective and what your brain is interpreting that your eyes are seeing. My obstacle for the week brings me to the concept of what does your favorite color say about your reality and about who you are? If you see an average of the wavelengths of light being sent to your eye and your brain is interpreting those signals. What does that say about your favorite color.

Your favorite color is obviously part of your personal reality but what does that say about you as a person. It seems like it says nothing or is that just my interpretation. Is there some neurological reason that our brain interprets one color as better than another? If so is that like astrology where your sign tells your personality or could it say what your favorite color is?

How do one’s visual preferences work? Are they neurological signals or is there more? It seems so difficult as to believe we are just an organism running on electrical signals and chemical signals. We see what is not there and we believe that we see what is not there.

How does this work. Can Color be the door to one’s mind or is it just random or does the amount of exposures of certain color dictate what your favorite color will be.

Why? How? There are no answers and there is nothing more confusing than answering a question with a question. There is no end just a new beginning that never does away.

eden's picture

Who am I?

I was having a conversation with my friend who is an english major about how she, as an english major, views human nature. I thought it was very interesting, because, if I understand her correctly, english majors generally discuss the self as if it were an etherial essence of some kind, and that human behavior is a result of various repressions of this due to societal pressures. When I mentioned that in this class we basically argue that everything is a product of the physical entity that is the brain, that there is no etherial "self," she was shocked. She said that if someone tried to argue that in her english class, they would probably be shot down by everyone in the class. I thought this was fascinating, because pretty much the exact opposite is true in this class (though perhaps not as extreme.) I think its pretty neat that different genres of subjects view things completely differently, and I see a lot of value in that. Sometimes I think it would be good for me to go sit in on an english class and hear someone argue the opposite case.

Kristin Jenkins's picture

I like this comment because

I like this comment because it draws me to another one of my own classes (Evolution and Stories) where we discuss how there is no real "truth" and how what we perceive to be real is really just our acceptance of someone's story that seems to fit the bill. Maybe for your English class friends, their story works the best for them. Their evidence leads them to believe that their reality is so, and our evidence leads us to believe otherwise. At the end of the day, though, we would still find ourselves arguing.

Aditya's picture

Different pathways of the eye

I remembered when we talked about people who have spastic paralysis and cannot consciously control their arm which is stuck in antigravity positions, but when a ball is thrown at them, they can block the ball out of instinct. There has to be a pathway between the the visual system, and the unconscious part of the brain that is in control independent of the "I" function. Can we scan the brain of these people as they are blocking the object out of instinct to locate this pathway?

Also on another note, there is something special about making eye contact with someone else. There is a big difference if someone is talking to you and looking into your eyes, vs. not looking into your eyes. There is a deeper connection, like the connection of two "I" functions recognizing  each other and communicating directly with each other. The eye is a gateway that allows this to happen. Why is there something special about this sense of making eye contact. I looked up studies on PubMed and found much research that shows there are EEG correlates with eye contact and how far away a person is

Also research has shown that maintaining eye contact for longer makes a person feel like they are being judged more positively.

Where in the visual pathway is the picture in the head being evaluated on these criteria? Were is this pathway? What about being with damage to the visual cortex, people who are blind, are they able to compensate for these feelings vital to everyday social interactions?

Holly Stewart's picture

Playing with Imagination

Making it up. Playing house. Using our imagination. These are activities we play as young children and then believe that we can grow up and grow out of it. It wasn’t until last week when the belief that I don’t do those things anymore all changed for me. Even if we tell ourselves we need to “grow up” and we are too old for playing imagination games, our brain has other ideas. Our brain is constantly imagining, but I think we need to define this term differently in the context of last week’s discussion. Your imagination is a product of the creative part of your mind which is used for constructing a world of ideas and images which may not seem “possible” or are somewhat removed from the reality that you experience. (Note that this is my definition, and is a construction of how I view my imagination.)

We have this tool, that I am calling the imagination which fills in the world as you want to see it. In our society we believe that we control our imagination and when and how we use it. After our discussion of the brain last week, I am not sure that this is really true. Last week’s discussion suggests that imagination may in fact be an innate part of the brain and may be in action much more than we have previously appreciated. Your brain is constantly using your imagination to fill in the gaps and to finish out the details of the picture you have of reality. Your imagination is working to create the picture in your brain and thus also what you see in the outside world. I don’t know if the imagination is really “making it all up,” since I don’t think that your brain is trying to fool your body into thinking reality is something different than it, your imagination is simply helping to tailor your reality to what your nervous system can handle.

It doesn’t seem that odd to me that the “picture in the head” is different for different people. There is a degree to which we do and process much of the sensations around us in similar ways, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the same experience. My ‘blue’ may be very different from yours, but the point is that it is your picture and it works for your sensory system.

The craziest part about all of this is when we think about the role (or lack of a role) the I-function plays in all of this. At the beginning of the course I feel like we determined the I-function to be an integral part of the human brain and we set it aside. Now something creative and requiring interpretation (i.e. the picture in the head) which I would assume to go through the I-function doesn’t. It definitely seems a bit counter-intuitive. The I-function isn’t needed for perception!?! We only need it for accessing this visual information and being conscious of it. I am not yet sure what this says about experience and the I-function’s involvement in consciousness and thus reality. It seems like reality may in fact be out of our conscious control and is a byproduct of the nervous system. We can then only access this byproduct via the I-function; each of these conclusions seem a bit wild to me, probably just because I have never thought about all this before.

Furthermore, what does this suggest about human instincts? In one of my posts earlier in the semester I was thinking about the influence of the I-function and its relationship to instincts. And if there is not a place in the brain for a picture, where do we get the concrete reaction which we attribute to instincts or instinctive actions? If our brain is filling in information/is taking in information but we are not conscious of it, then instincts are not really as we say they are. Instincts are actually then just reactions to information that is already present but not interpreted by the I-function. But then who or what is choosing to react? What is it about the information that causes us to react in the way we do? Can our imagination not fill it in or there are too many options? What causes instinctive actions and how does this relate to the “picture in our head”? So many questions!

Rebecca Pisciotta's picture

I am really interested by

I am really interested by the fact that many people seem to be frustrated by the feeling that we are "limited" in our experience of reality. This feeling of being cheated/missing out seems to have its root in a couple of notions. First is the idea that different species experience reality differently. For example, some animals are able to perceive a wider range of a given stimuli than we can, while other animals have receptors for stimuli we cannot perceive at all. Additionally irksome is what we have learned these past few classes, that the much of the external stimuli that we are able to experience may be fabricated by our brains. It can even be debated whether there is actually one objective reality out there. And if there is one Reality we may have to accept that we will never be able to fully observe/experience it.

I get how this can be frustrating. We miss out on certain ways of perceiving the world, what we do perceive of the world cannot be counted on to truely represent whats out there, there may not even be an out there out there, and even if there is we may never be able to get to it.

I am interested in the problems other have with this idea. To me it seems pretty...logical. We perceive the world via mechanisms that are appropriate for the behaviors we carry out. We dont have receptors for magnetic fields because that information is not particularly useful to the way we live. Humans typically find a good spot and stay there. We do not cover large distances and therefore do not need the unique navigational devices some birds have developed. The sound range we are able to experience is determined by the sounds relevant to our lives, human voices, tiger roars, baby cries, trickling streams, a mosquitos buzz. We make things up because there are gaps, and since on the large, things are predictable, we are able to fill in the blanks appropriatley. Whether or not there is an out there out there is pretty irrelevant for our lives. Who cares? As long are we are able to function as an individual and a society the existence of an objective reality has no real consequence one way or the other. Though it is of course an interesting talking point.

I'm glad this blog exists and that I get to hear the questions raised by other students. For example the questions that have been asked, and I hope continue to be asked about this concept. And what exactly about it surprises or bothers everyone. It is true that we miss out, but what if we could perceive magnetic fields? Would this additional information benefit us? Would we be able to integrate it with our other sensory mechanisms to create a unified experience? Or would any more infomation be too much information, resulting in sensory overload and a jumbled experience? I guess I am questioning the merit that could be found in experiencing "more" "all" or "true" reality.

A.Kyan's picture

Rebecca- I share the same

Rebecca- I share the same thoughts with you on the items you mention in your post.  Like I've mentioned in past posts, I'm also fine that my brain fills in the gaps and leaves out information I don't need.  I actually prefer its efficiency.  Furthermore, pondering all the why's in our most recent discussions seem helpful and interesting to opening our minds and broadening our perspectives, but finding the answer doesn't seem so important to me.  

I'm missing the passion that others in the class have on this discussion.  To me, it seems like we are directing our energies toward something that is interesting and fascinating, but at the end of the day, does it really matter?  I think I'm at fault for only being interested in things that help make the world go around and a better place.  I'm probably missing the big picture, so I too am glad to hear the questions raised by other students and see how it broadens my own ideas.   

AnnaM's picture

I don't think you're missing the bigger picture at all...

I've been wanting to say something along these lines ever since we started discussing reality in relation to vision, but I've never been exactly sure how to word it. Thank you for putting it so nicely.

Darlene Forde's picture

Let us redefine our epistemology

I agree with you Rebecca . . . .for the most part. I think people should feel comfortable with (and appreciative of) our ways of perceiving the world. It is ideally suited to the way we live our lives. Or alternatively, we live our lives in ways that are ideally suited to the way we perceive our world.

However, this reminds me of certain questions we asked earlier in the semester. There are people out there who appear to perceive more than what is generally perceived, whose perceptions like deviations away from the mean. Psychics, individuals with synesthesia, people who see auras, or individuals with brain trauma who are capable of "seeing" what we have determined to be impossible with portion of the brain missing. This leads me to believe that humans, through culture, have learned to suppressive many ways in which we perceive our world. Acculturation has stripped humans of the ability to interpret their worlds in all the ways we are capable, rather than facilitate a more sophisticated ways of perception.

Is this why all the great spiritual leaders have sought to escape the chains of civilizations, if only temporarily, in order to develop and understanding of the world around them? Perhaps there is both truth and reality in those perceptions that like more than 1 standard deviation from the mean. If so the true 'enlightenment' may lay in developing a richer understanding of the many different methods by which we are currently capable of understanding the world, drawing readily on these different ways of seeing while recognizing them as valid. In short, let us redefine our epistemology.

Lauren Poon's picture


I read in a general overview of the left and right complex in our brain, that hearing takes in the world from a left-right stand point. Take a loud sound coming from our right. Both ears can hear the sound. The right ear sends signals to the left brain hemisphere while the left ear sends signals to the right hemisphere. The brain then compares the amplitude and time of arrival of the sound from each ear. The brain formulates a proportion between the two sides. The side receiving the sound with the high amplitude and faster arrival time is where the sound is coming from.

I thought the auditory proportion deduced in the brain was similar to the eye’s three photo-pigment proportions. Based on the ratio of activity between two receptors, a person perceives a specific color. I think it’s interesting how a lot of our perceiving is based on a simple ratio formed in the brain.

I’m curious why people seem to disagree on very mixed colors like teal, maroon, or periwinkle. These colors should fall on the same receptors and create the same ration. Still, some people say teal is a green color while others say it’s a blue color. Why is this?

katherine's picture

Reality check

Recently, this class has really made me second guess my own assumptions about the world.  Never had I thought that what I was seeing was made up or that there are things out there I am not seeing.  But since this is so, perhaps there’s something to be said for this.  I have never second guessed my perception of reality because other people seem to have drawn similar conclusions.  It is not as if we have to constantly ask if we are seeing or experiencing the same thing.  The majority of the time, it seems like we come to a general consensus about what is going on and what we’re looking at.  Of course there are exceptions like the pictures of the woman/skull, but for the most part, the fact that we unconsciously make up pictures in our head and don't experience everything in the world that other creatures can doesn’t seem to interfere with day to day life.  That being said, why?  How are we as humans able to have such a range of different abilities and talents but then come up with the same image in our head without being conscious of it?  Are there cases when people don’t have this ability and how does this impact their day to day life?     

Caroline Wright's picture

Drugs, Alcohol, Etc

Along similar lines, I was thinking the other day about reality as well. In class when we first starting figuring out how are reality was a sort of relative thing, we were asked whether or not that bothered us, whether it made a difference if what we are seeing/believing what we are seeing is whats actually out there. Most of us answered that, no, it wasn't completely disconcerting because thats just how it is. But even in relation to the things we've learned about, I realize that most people purposely alter there realities on a somewhat regular basis. This is, after all, exactly what drugs and alcohol do. They can make you see things more clearly, or see colors in a psychedelic way that you would never normally be able to see, to feel like you're flying or falling, to change the way you feel about situations, change your emotions, loosen your inhibitions. Even prescription medicines like anti-depressants or over-the-counter pain relievers are changing the way we think and perceive what is going on around us and within ourselves. It's almost as if people are more inclined to try and get even further away from some universal reality than to try and find it.

jpena's picture

Thoughts on Depression

It's interesting to think about people using drugs or alcohol to alter their realities. I've always thought of people using them to escape from reality as they see it. As far as drugs like antidepressants are concerned, I've thought of them as a way to bring people back to reailty. Depression seems like another example of a deviation from the average reality to me. I've always understood it be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that results in an individual's altered sense of reality. Antidepressants were, therefore, a way to correct the imbalance and return the brain to reality. This might no longer apply if reality is defined in the individual by what the brain creates.

I recently watched a documentary called Grizzly Man, which was about a man who lived in the wilderness in Alaska to "protect" wildlife. His focus was mainly on his ability to live around grizzly bears without being attacked and even to remain in some sort of harmony with them. While he remained successful at this cohabitation for a long time his sense of reality was obviously unlike anything I had seen before. Theories about his mental health frequently come up when he is discussed. Many believe that he is manic-depressive and that this condition contributed to his unique sense of reality with regards to nature and wilderness. While my reality is drastically different from his, he does manage to maintain his reality for a period of time. Giving him medications to correct his disorder would not necessarily return him reality, but merely change it into something closer to the norm or average.

LS's picture

Grip on reality

I do not actually remember where I learned about this theory (I think abnormal psychology).  Anyways, this theory states that depressed individuals actually have a more accurate view on the world and their abilities.  Non depressed individuals tend to over estimate their abilities and have a less realistic grip on reality.   I just always liked this theory because it does show that reality is individualized to every person and that things may not always be as we expect.

Student's picture

special talents with special receptors?

So we can only see a really small amount of what's actually out there, because we only have receptors for this much.  Frustrating.. in a way, that we know there's so much more, yet so little we can to see it. I started to think about how different people are better- more talented, at different things. Some people are better at sports, some people are better at the arts, some people are better with certain academic subjects.. I think there's research being done on different ethnic groups- on muscle types, etc., to find out why some groups seem to be better at some sports than others, but I wonder if there's a receptor part here involved.. that maybe, for some sports that involve more precise eyesight, or a quicker anticipation- that people better at those sports have a receptor, or receptors, that other people don't have.. maybe we're just not aware of them..

Molly Tamulevich's picture


I used to be a pretty obsessed fan of the X-files, and something about Thursday's discussion of seeing something without the I-function knowing about it made me remember an episode that I had particularly liked. It involved a man who could see a monster that could hide itself in the light. The only time that it was visible to us was in shadow. It looked like a human most of the time, but it was only a trick it used to conceal its true self so that it could feed on people.

Now, regardless of the fact that this is an unlikely scenario in real life, I want to know what we aren't seeing. Maybe there are no monsters lurking around, but I have started to become very frustrated by knowing that there are whole spectrums in existence that my body does not have the sensors to detect. Not only that, but I am curious about what my body DOES detect and does not pass onto my I-function.

I used to attend a Sufi Fellowship in Overbrook, and during one lesson, we were told how there are entire worlds going on all around us all the time. Only certain people with certain powers of sight have the ability to detect them, but these other worlds are the source of many of our myths and legends. They are beyond the comprehension and vision of the average person. On a less allegorical level, aren't snakes, cockaroaches and whales living in a different world than we are? Animals that see with 4 color receptors must inhabit a more subtle and vibrant world. Those that hear higher pitches and see more types of light must do the same. I am curious about how these perceptions shape the reality of other creatures. Is our reality grossly simple compared to theirs, or is the input from our sense as much as we can handle?