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Seeing, reality, ambiguity, and the I-function

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. You're welcome to post here any thoughts that have arisen during the course this week (and to respond to thoughts others have posted)

Among the issues that have come up this week is the notion that what we see is a particular view of "reality", dependent on processes we are largely unaware of and always involving the resolution of a inescapable ambiguity in the input we receive.  Among the problems that follow from this is what is the role of the I-function in seeing?  or behavior generally?

jwong's picture


The question of what defines a “reality” has been mulled over quite a lot in the last week of class/forum discussion. Something I mentioned in the class discussion was the fact that I think there is a universal reality shared among all of us that allows us to relate to each other on some level. This is a form of reality that none of us really know for sure about… instead we all recognize similarities among us that constitute a definitive reality. However the reason why this reality is the universal one is only because we all instinctively need to relate to one another somehow. In truth, we each have our own individual interpretations of the world, allowing us our own elucidation of what exists in the confines of our personal reality. Thus, any reality is rather subjective, since our I-functions permit us to have these individual views of the world. The universal reality is thereby just the name that we associate with the given things we can all relate to with each other. I think this demonstrates that there can be no infinite truth because an infinitely true reality means everyone can relate and appreciate a certain fact. However, this ideal is rare, and seems to point to the fact that even if a majority of people believe in one idea, it does not instantly invalidate its reciprocal proposal at all.

Mahvish Qureshi's picture

I found our discussion in

I found our discussion in class on Tuesday about the reality of color to be very interesting. It reminds me of a class I once had in which we discussed the perception of color. As said in class we all have the same nervous system taking in the data, however we could have been taught to respond in the same way to something that we are all seeing dfferently?

For example what I see and call the color red, maybe a color that another person sees as blue but has been taught to respond to as red. Although this might be a stretch to the construct of reality that the brain forms, it may be a possiblity, that people may perceive things differently but have been given language skills that make them name things the same.

Sophie F's picture

Interesting article


about pain as an art form. 

Simone Shane's picture

Even more subjectivity of reality

Reality is such a funny concept since it doesn't seem like it can ever be fully grasped by anyone due to the limited and subjective nature of our senses. I mentioned in the forum a couple weeks ago the top down nature of perception, where our long term memory helps determine not only what in our environment we even notice, but also how we perceive everything that is able to grasp our attention. Both our experiences and culture can change how we see our outside world, adding yet another confound to our perception of reality.
Skye Harmony's picture

reality; the I-function and vision

Just because we can’t detect all of reality or define reality doesn’t mean that a universal reality doesn’t exist. Sure, reality is not universally experienced, since each individual is limited in their perceptions of the world around them. But there can be one true reality- it’s just that no one person is capable of perceiving it. We each have our own unique perceptions, and there are also aspects of reality (like UV light) that no human can perceive. That doesn’t mean UV light doesn’t exist- we can measure it in other ways. It’s just not feasible to detect or measure all aspects of reality.

I’ve thought of a few examples of the I-function influencing vision. First, when someone reads a sentence that contains a typo (such as a spelling error or a repeated word), they often don’t notice the typo. The eyes are assumedly detecting each letter correctly, so it must be the I-function that compares the input to previous remembered input and fixes the typo. Second, visual hallucinations are a relevant topic that I covered in my recent webpaper on alien abductions. It’s possible for someone to have a vague hallucination and fill in the details (at that time, or later) based on their prior knowledge, much as it is common for witnesses to recreate memories that end up being false. This just goes to show that we can’t trust any one person’s perception because not only is it influenced by what input is available to them, but it can be changed within the brain, sometimes without the person knowing anything was changed.

Allison Z's picture


When thinking about the idea of different realities, I am reminded of the fallibility of witnesses. Many studies have been done that test the accuracy of witnesses, and the results are somewhat alarming. For instance one study showed that when a gun is introduced, people's accuracy in describing anything that happened in the situation goes down, to the point where they can remember incorrect facts. Witnesses also often identify innocent people as guilty, and remember situations in different orders. While it is incredibly unsettling to imagine that our reality is not in fact the reality, it is not surprising that our senses can lie to us, given this information. It also suggests that vision is not the only sense that "lies", and that even with all the senses together we still get a highly biased and personal reality.
K. Smythe's picture


I think the idea of what reality is takes more thought than originally i had believed.  We've spent a lot of time in this class talking about how subjective all of our experiences are and even the idea that maybe our experiences are simply constructions of the brain.  How can we know what "reality" really is?  Is reality universal and if so how can we tell what is "universal" as we cannot know objectively what others are experiencing.  We do know at some level the general architecture of the nervous system but there are so many tiny differences it seems too difficult to generalize that we all function the same (who can say what proteins each person has and how those proteins respond to input).  Also couldn't our experience of other simply be a construction of our own brain? 

 As to how the I-function ties into all of this reality business, I'm not sure that it is so important.  I don't think there is a way to know if the I-function plays a role in reality because we don't know if reality is universal or simply a subjective experience.  In the event that it is (to some extent) "universally experienced" I suppose I would agree that the I-function does not necessarily play a role in reality, however I am not entirely convinced that this is the case.  To me it seems totally plausible that reality is subjective and maybe even a construction or partially constructed by the I-function.

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

White Rabbit

When we say that our sight limits our ability to perceive the world, I can’t help thinking, stop overreacting!! Like Jessica said, it doesn’t hurt my feelings that reality is a construction of the brain. Our view of reality is “dependent on processes we are largely unaware of”, so what? Who here wants to have complete conscious control over your own reality? Any takers? Think twice. Talk about a full time job, we couldn’t even function in society if we were in charge of perceiving every input in our world. Call me unimaginative, cold, and pragmatic, but it doesn’t scare me or bother me at all that I am dependent on a reality that sometimes involves the “resolution of an inescapable ambiguity in the input we receive”.
Yes, sometimes we can be tricked into a false sense of reality (optical illusions) but that is why it is so great that we have multiple senses. With all of the senses working to interpret input, we can make a more “accurate” picture of reality. I am also intrigued by Evan’s reality as an asymptote example, but who is the lucky devil who gets to define ultimate reality? I have to question the usefulness of defining a “true” reality when, well, there is no truth…
Also, what do you think about the movie, The Matrix? I watched it this weekend, and could not stop thinking about its implications for our class. Perhaps we should follow the white rabbit into our own rebellion against the “machine” and why it is we seek to have so much control over our own lives.
merry2e's picture


awareness? self reflection? i think the "I"...yes perhaps....

cheffernan's picture


As I go through and read a lot of people's posts and think about what we have been discussing in class, I can't help but think about what we started off class with. We started off determining wheter Descartes or Emily Dickinson was right in their notions of the mind. We agreed on what Dickinson said:

"The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside-..."


In our journey to discover what is "less wrong", I believe this return to where we started only validates our initial claim and allows us to continue on by continually checking our foundation. Based on the Dickinson poem, what does "The Brain" refer to in our nervous system? Does Dickinson mean the I-function? 

Caitlin Jeschke's picture


Our discussion in class this week about “reality” reminded me of one of my favorite passages from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard:


“A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until "My God," says a second man, "I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn." At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience. "Look, look," recites the crowd. "A horse with an arrow in its forehead. It must have been mistaken for a deer."


This passage touches on one of the conclusions that we reached in class: that the things we tend to accept as “real” are those things that are constructed in the same way by everyone’s brains (ex: the wall).  I think that there is a parallel between the way our brain integrates the images of a thing that it receives from all of our various senses, and the way that we as a society define reality based on the way that large numbers of people see the world.  We know that it is possible for a person to have a sensory disorder that causes him or her to construct objects differently with different senses (ex: for someone that is visually impaired, a cube may feel like a small, solid object with well-defined edges, but look like a huge blurry blob of color).  So, it follows that it is also quite possible that some individuals construct realities that are quite different from what society has defined as normal.  Do we then tell these people that what they are experiencing (what their “I-function” is telling them) is wrong?  People who are blind or deaf are considered to be to an extent disabled, because their inability to see or hear is a disadvantage in our society.  However, some people would consider synesthesia to be a disorder as well, even though it can be helpful, and provide a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. I think (and I know some people in our class agree) that we are too quick to assume that the way we perceive things is the “best” way, and also too quick to dismiss alternative perceptions as being flawed.  I look forward to continuing our discussion of reality and the I-function.

gflaherty's picture

gender differences

I started surfing the web looking for interesting articles on perceived reality and eyesight and came across this short article.

This article talks about some differences between the way men see and the way women see.  The author argues that from an evolutionary standpoint, women have had a more domestic role and thus pay more attention to objects that are closer and have a broader scope of sight.  Whereas men, who had the role of hunting, are more inclined to see objects farther away, with a sort of tunnel vision.  Although I am not sure I agree with this argument, I think it is an interesting issue that is brought up.  Do men and women see the world differently?  Are our 'realities' different? 

Madina G.'s picture

The I-function and strokes

I've never contemplated the brain's ability to "fill in the gaps" when it comes to identifying an object, but indeed as it was demonstrated in class with the wall, there is a mechanism by which we can associate the borders or rather the beginning and the end of an object, and to conclude that everything in between belongs to that object as well.

I'm fairly comfortable attributing this ability to the I-function, however it then had me thinking about individuals who have suffered a stroke and can no longer verbally express what an object is. Much of this is explained by possible damage to Wernicke's area which is responsible for language skills, however strokes also often involve damage to the visual field as well. Is the inability to verbally express what an object is, actually an injury to the I-function, where once again the role of corollary discharge signals have been challenged by an abrupt interruption in the pathway of signal transduction?

evanstiegel's picture

My problem lately has been

My problem lately has been our use of the term "reality".  I think we tend to discuss reality as though it is a dynamic entity.  We have been discussing how it is ambiguous because each person's brain constructs it as something different.  I still firmly believe though that reality is a permanent fixture.  Each of us may perceive it differently because of lateral inhibition, etc., but reality is, and will always be no matter how any of us perceive it, reality.  What I mean is that reality acts kind of like an asymptote, and what we see is the curve that is trying to approach that asymptote.  Like the curve, what we see will never touch or cross the asymptote (or be identical to the true reality), but our brain/I-function attempts to come as close to it as possible, filling in all the necessary spaces and gaps.  So, my point is that before we dismiss reality because of every human's varying perception of it, remember that there is an actual reality, or certainty, that exists...even though none of us see it for what it actually is.  I hope this makes sense to someone...I will try to to re-explain it if necessary. 



nasabere's picture

Not convinced...

"... there is an actual reality, or certainty, that exists..."

Not if we truly adopt Emily Dickenson's philosophy; if you subscribe to her beleifs, even our concept of "reality" is in the brain. I interpret that to mean that "reality" is not actually real, despite what our brains tell us--but then again, I don't know if I am completely willing to accept the idea that "everything is in the brain." It's frightening to think that we could be swimming in a see of nothingness and that our brains construct every fabric of our lives.

ptong's picture


Just wondering, is this the subject about whether we actually exist? Because it seems that in order to be "real" or to be reality, it has to exist in some place or time. If that is so, then I feel that reality does exist and is real. Even if the brain is fabricating all of what we see or know, there is still reality because the mind/brain is real. Basically, what I'm trying to get at is, in order for there to be a reality, something has to be real......right?
Angel Desai's picture


I'm not sure if what we see is a construction of the brain, but I do believe that what we do not see is definitely something which our brain should take responsibility for. When two people look at a cup, in all probability, they will both agree that what is there is a cup. However, when one person believes in something that does not fit in within the framework of another's personal reality, then perhaps that person has chosen to "see" what their mind believes to be an absolute. In this same vein, I am still unresolved on whether the I-function really does dictate perception-didnt we say a few classes back that the I-function can participate in an activity without being directly influential? I like Sophie's thought that the I-function can act as a filter (i hope this is what she was getting at!)...we do not need it to see but it perhaps plays a part in the type of reality that each individual develops over time. This is a very confusing thought indeed...
Paul B's picture

I-function and our perception

I think the blinking lights were a pretty cool demonstration of how our I-function dictates our vision. My perception of how the lights moved (the direction of the blinking lights) was solely based on what my I-function determined. When I concentrated on changing the movement of the lights, my visual perception of how the lights moved changed as well. Interestingly, I was not able to visualize two directions at once - perhaps this is reflective of how we only have one I-function.

This can be translated to the ambiguous pictures or even the checker board. The I-function determined that the presented image was a black and white checker board so that is how one visually perceives it. Despite the fact that the "black" and "white" tiles were of the same color, since the I-function determined them to be different colors, we perceived the tiles as different colors.

My point -- the I-function totally dictates our vision.

merry2e's picture

Interesting thoughts...

As I was writing my paper I came across this and thought I would share it as something interesting to think about on the topic of consciousness/"I" function effectiveness, etc.:

                to see, to hear, to feel, or otherwise to experience something is to be conscious, irrespective of whether in addition one is aware that one is seeing, hearing, and so forth, as cogently argued by Dretske.  Such additional awareness, in reflective consciousness or self-consciousness, is one of many content of consciousness available to creatures with sophisticated cognitive capacities. However, as noted by Morin (2006), even in their case, it is present only intermittently, in a kind of time-sharing with more immediate, unreflective experience. To dwell in the latter is not to fall unconscious, but to be unselfconsciously conscious. Reflective awareness is thus more akin to a luxury of consciousness on the part of certain big-brained species, and not its defining property (1).

(1)    Merker, Bjorn. “Consciousness without a Cerebral cortex: A Challenge for neuroscience and medicine.”   Behavioral and Brain Science. (2007) 30. 63-134.  Tripod. BMC Library, Bryn Mawr, PA.

Margaux Kearney's picture

Ambiguous Reality

I am still having a hard time accepting the fact that what we see is a construction of the brain and not physical reality. Maybe its difficult for me to conceive as I have never thought of reality being ambiguous with the nervous system trying to come up with the best story that satisfies simulataneously as many senses as possible. With the exercises on ambiguous figures in class, I could see both the skull and the lady looking at herself in the mirror, for example. Why when I look at a table, for example, do I only see a table? Is it the way that I interpret the table that is different from everyone else that makes the object ambiguous? I really want to understand, but at the moment my head is spinning!


With respect to the "I" function, could it possibly play a part once we have become aware of both images in the skull/woman picture for example? When I first looked at the picture, only the skull was apparent. However, later on I was able to perceive the woman looking at herself in the mirror. From then on, I was "aware" of both images.

Sophie F's picture

That our sight literally

That our sight literally limits our ability to perceive the world in its entirety makes sense. Were we to have heightened awareness, through visual acuity, this may serve to overwhelm the nervous system and limit us in other ways. If any one sense were heightened over the others, would this make the world around us, our perceptions, more “real?” I would tend to think not, as “real” is only a best “guess,” a piecing together of diverse and simultaneous input to create a tapestry that is “reality.” It seems there is no one, uniform reality, as such. Given the variance in human perception. This seems, in some way, to reconcile the continuum of human behavior in that disparate realities generate disparate behaviors. Are people with autism, who experience heightened sensory perception, hindered by this ability?

Is the I-function, therefore, as Dickinson suggested, a part of the vast possibility that is human reality-generation and behavior? Perhaps the I-function serves to mediate between the nervous system as it pieces together visual stimuli and enables us give shape and texture in the emotional, not literal sense, to what it is that we are seeing. How things that we see make us feel and about what we think upon seeing certain visual cues. Is this the realm of the I-function? The I-function must also work in concert with parts of the nervous system to recall previous experiences and how what we are seeing is in some way a pattern, which can be related to something we have seen in the past. And, so we return to the nervous system’s looping mechanisms. And while we do “see” without the I-function, the I-function may somehow personalize the experience of sight and give it context, layers and meaning beyond the mere physical “reality” of sight.

Simone Shane's picture

Limit or Advantage?

I agree with you that any "limits" to our sight may indeed be in place so that we are not overwhelmed or confused by what we see. However, I'm still not sure if we should say that our sight limits our ability to perceive the world. I do believe that there has to be one universal state of our surroundings, making up what some may call the "real world". Indeed, our sight may not see this "real" world, but it does allow us to perceive some aspect of that true external world. This made me think whether seeing people or blind people have an advantage when trying to perceive the "real" world. That is, if we are limited by our sight because it provides us with a false reality, would a blind person, who does not have this false reality, have a better understanding of their "true" environment? I'm inclined to think not. Furthermore, a large part of me doesn't even think it matters that what we perceive is as close to real as possible. Seeing allows us to pick out aspect of our environment not available to someone who is blind and in that way our sight gives us an advantage in perceiving the world-or some aspects of it. Indeed, as you mentioned, any limits to our sight are only advantages. What we see may not be what is true "reality," but it is a constructive way for us to better understand that reality.
merry2e's picture

What about people born without vision?

I wonder what people who are born without sight would feel about "sight literally limits our ability to perceive the world in its entirety" ? I think those without vision perceive their world in its entirety and in their own sense of what reality is...just a thought.
anonstudent01's picture

Ambiguous Reality

The exercise in class on thursday was both interesting and unnerving. We did something similar in grade school but I have never been made so aware of how "selective" vision can be. The degree to which the nervous system interprets ambiguity is also quite astounding and it is frightening to think that everything that we feel strong emotion towards, see as beautiful or identify as a fundamental part of our personhood could in fact be an interpretation. I understand that there are varying degrees of reality (very few of which we experience) which all originate in the brain, but what frustrates me is that for better or worse the I-function has no say in reality. Our lives are so short and yet if we are lucky they are rich and multi-faceted- is that richness not real? Or not at least as close to real as we can experience? One comforting thought is that everyone is thus "limited" so no one is missing out on what another person is experiencing- but could the people who we love most deeply or encounter everyday be having an entirely different experience because of ambiguous interpretation? Or is the ambiguity what makes our experiences of reality common?
maggie_simon's picture

Definition of Reality

I disagree with your statement that ‘the I-function has no say in reality.’  I can see two ways of interpreting “reality” here.  The first is that there is a concrete universal reality that is always present in the background but which is not necessarily accessible to everyone.  If this is the reality that you are talking about, an external reality, then perhaps yes, the I-function has no say in it (although perhaps the I-function has a say in how the conversion of that external reality to an internal reality happens: this brings me to the second kind of reality: the internal reality).  It seems that you are actually talking about an internal reality with the dilemma that this reality is based on interpretation of the body’s experience of interactions with the external world.  I would therefore argue that the I-function does have a say in how the world is interpreted.  I think that an example of this is when two people talk about how they experience something, and in so doing, they learn from each other (grow) so that they each are able to experience that same thing differently the next time around.  The I-function of the first person analyzes and describes to another person how the first person’s nervous system interprets something, and this verbalization allows the I-function of the second person to internalize this different way of interpreting something.  I think that through this process of sharing by employing the I-function to look at what is going on internally, experience can be understood as something more than just an “ambiguous interpretation.”

Caroline Feldman's picture

Seeing four Dimensions

This might be a little off topic, but I hear that some people claim that they can imagine 4-dimensional objects. I wonder how this can be since our universe only has three physical dimensions - is it really possible to imagine these things and do these people have any proof? I myself find it impossible to imagine anything but projections of these objects onto 3-dimensions. I do not know how people can imagine a Four-dimensional object. We live in three dimensions, and it is difficult to imagine another "direction" that is perpendicular to our existing dimensions. Perhaps people with special imaginations can do it.

This seems analogous to color vision. Humans usually see three primary colors, and the brain is able to "see" the full spectrum of colors from these primaries. Some creatures, like insects, have a fourth primary color receptor. They might "see" colors that humans cannot imagine, or at least I cannot imagine.
mkhilji's picture

Based on our discussion in

Based on our discussion in class, I interpreted the I-function as perhaps the "reality" that is an inescapable ambiguity in whatever input we receive. I would say this in terms of dreams that sometimes they may seem very random and terrifying but when one remembers and tries to analyze it they are able to interpret it and perhaps rationalize what the dream actually meant or the purpose of the dream. I would say the fact that we are able to rationalize may be because our I-functions are ambiguously sending us a message in our sleep, or making us think about some previous thoughts in a different context.


I would be interested in what the I-functions role may be in certain instances of experiencing "deja vu". Deja vu is this sense of familiarity and can some times be accompanied by a sense of eeriness as one is put in a situation where they experience something that happened already in the past or perhaps in a previous dream. In terms of the certain experience being previously viewed in a dream can this be attributed to our I-function or of a higher power. Doesn't this issue bring about a clash between science and religion for circumstances like this?

mcrepeau's picture

Deja Vu all over again...

Perhaps, as we have come to learn with many other neurological functions and experiences, the I-Function has little or nothing to do with the de ja vu experience except being aware that it has happened...adding the "I" to the sense of "I've" been here or "I've" done that before. As I understand it, there is really no conclusive explanation for the phenomenon of de ja vu; however, out of the several theories I have heard one of the most interesting has to do with the way in which our brains process information. Someone once explained to me that the way we experience neurological phenomenon is analogous to sitting backwards in a car and watching the scenery go by only after we've already passed it. This makes sense when one takes into account exactly how quickly action potentials occur and are passed along in relation to how the higher architecture of the brain constructs time (basically it's similar to the example Molly brought up in class were our hand has already closed the door before we even think to do so). However, in this theory, the sensation of de ja vu occurs when the higher architectural components of the brain actually function within the real time of the nervous system and thus are apart of or react to a stimulus at the same time as the actual sensory neurons, etc. and then re-experience the same phenomenon again within the context of it's own time...i.e. we glance out of the front of the car at the scenery ahead of us or as we pass it and then turn around and experience again as it goes by.

However, after reading Jessica's post and after having taken into consideration the fact that our brain is more than adept at constructing reality and generating spontaneous stimuli, I wonder if the phenomenon of de ja vu is yet another example of a disconnect between corollary discharge units and random, experimental activity from other parts of the brain. Perhaps, the feeling of "I've" been here or seen this before that one gets in the de ja vu phenomenon is part of the random generation of activity between the amygdala and the hippocampus, producing the sensation of recognition, which, as Jessica discusses is both an emotional valence as well as a sensory (memory of/correlation between images, smells, textures, etc.) one. Perhaps, de ja vu occurs when such activity is produced unexpectedly (i.e. the message didn't get around that this was just a test, etc.) and the brain is forced to reconcile this activity with the input it is currently receiving from the environment resulting in a false sense of recognition in relation to a place or action (sort of like when the brain's solution to contradictory information sent from the right and left eyes in relation to the position and depth of your finger is to make the finger transparent).

Molly Pieri's picture

Believing is Seeing

A week ago, Emily Alspector posted a comment titled "Seeing is Believing". After our last few classes, however, I'm fairly well convinced that the seeing-believing causal relationship is actually the reverse of this. It seems like in many instances our eyes do not physically perceive an image, but our mind decides to believe that it is there, and only as a result of this do we "see" the missing image. (As in the dot demo we spoke about last week.) But more significantly still, is when our eyes perceive no physical difference between object, but our mind fills in the difference for us. An example of this phenomenon was the checker-board picture which was part of the lateral-inhibition demonstration. With these sorts of things in mind, I would put forth that (at least sometimes) it is not seeing something which causes us to believe in its existence, but rather belief in something which causes us to see it.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Seeing and believing inverted

From which it follows that believing is .... ?
Mahvish Qureshi's picture


I think that the ambigous figures that we saw in class today, were very interesting. While I have seen many of these ambigous figures before in Psychology class, where it was analyzed that what is seen is based on whether the brain chooses the black or the white to be the background of the image. It also raises a very interesting quiestion about reality, and whether one can trust everything that they see.

This leads me to wonder about hypnosis and how that plays a role in the tricks of the eye, or the tricks of perception. When someone is hypnotized they are in a semi-trance and are very calm, but they tend to see and react to inputs which are not there but which they believe are there. So when we say that our brain is filling in the blindspots with what it thinks should be there, is it really just that we ourselves (possibly our I-functions) are convincing ourselves to see something and hence out of this conviction we see something or form a reality. Could this be similar to hypnosis which essentially works to convince a person of something, which results in their perception of that thing.

Jackie Marano's picture

Seeing, Reality, and Out of Body Experiences

This is a very interesting observation, and I have recently been thinking along these lines myself. This entry reminds me of a topic that I introduced in the forum several months ago when we were at the very beginning of our discussion of the brain, the I-function, and the nervous system: out of body experiences (or OBE). I revisited this topic and did some additional research, and I found some interesting information on OBEs on Wikipedia:

"An out-of-body experience (OBE or sometimes OOBE), is an experience that typically involves a sensation of floating outside of one's body and, in some cases, perceiving one's physical body from a place outside one's body...OBEs are often part of the near-death-experience...It is claimed that those experiencing an OBE sometimes observe details which were unknown to them beforehand... There appear to be two common forms of such lucid experiences. The first involves lucid dreaming, where the subject is immersed in unrealistic worlds, or in a modified form of the reality with impossible or inconsistent features. A second experience is of a more physical nature where the environment is consistent with reality; this is often called an etheric or ethereal experience. This type can be frightening, as extremely realistic physical sensations may occur, often including magnetic and vibrating phenomena, loss of balance, and confusion. The person believes he has awoken physically and panic can be caused by the realization that limbs appear to be penetrating objects...English psychologist Susan Blackmore suggests that an OBE begins when a person loses contact with sensory input from the body while remaining conscious.The person retains the illusion of having a body, but that perception is no longer derived from the senses. The perceived world may resemble the world he or she generally inhabits while awake, but this perception does not come from the senses either. The vivid body and world is made by our brain's ability to create fully convincing realms, even in the absence of sensory information. This process is witnessed by each of us every night in our dreams, though OBEs are claimed to be far more vivid..."

I find this phenomenon very interesting, and it is very much related to hypnosis and Mahvish's questions...except that the 'input' to the system is the person herself/himself, and NOT another person (the hypnotist). While it seems impossible that one could actually exit his or her body and observe himself/herself from an external point of view, I find it very interesting that these OBEs are so 'real' to people that they often cannot distinguish them from everyday physical 'reality' as perceived by the eye. It almost seems to me that most people have two distinct memory-banks that have minor overlap; one for the perceived reality, and one for dreams that we have when we sleep. For instance, you might have had a dream that your nose started to bleed in the middle of our Neuro class, but several days or even weeks later, your memory-bank would make it known to you that this did not actually happen...but rather that it was just part of your dream...and you would be quite certain about that. But how did you know that? How are so many people able to know that? What's really cool (but also frightening) about OBEs is that people cannot distinguish these two...and that my recently-created memory-bank hypothesis does not apply here. Why is this true? Is this a glitch of the I-function? If these OBEs often happen in near-death we 'see' these dreams and do they seem 'real' and inseparable from 'reality' because the I-function is in disbelief?

Jessica Varney's picture

I think that adding

I think that adding out-of-body experiences as an observation really opens up a lot of interesting venues for discussion. I have a friend who talks about his lucid dreaming all the time, so from time to time, I've wondered about it. I would assume that lucid dreaming occurs when your I-function figures on. Kind of a, "Hey, that was a flying dog. Dogs don't fly. I'm dreaming, and I'll probably wake up soon," thing.

But out-of-body experiences- wow, that's such an interesting connection to make. I did some quick googling and came up with a BBC News article about scientists who were able to recreate out-of-body experiences. This article seems to suggest that out-of-body experiences are more like motion sickness, due to corollary discharge signals not matching up with sensory input. Check it out, it's pretty cool stuff!

Jessica Krueger's picture

Reality Through Associations

It’s a question I’m not sure anyone else is considering right now, but my thesis is guiding my thought in this course, and what I brought up in class won’t let me stop thinking about it. Reality is a construction of the mind (that doesn’t really hurt my feelings, nor has it since I learned that years ago), but how does it build this construction?

When I touch and see wall, I get two “elemental” constructions, and then associate them with each other and a certain meaning (which, given Damasio’s discovery that thought is highly complex emotion, could be considered a specific emotional valence).

In Pavlovian fear conditioning, a conditioned stimulus, an emotionally or evolutionarily neutral change in the environment, is paired with an unconditioned stimulus, an emotionally or evolutionarily salient change in the environment, in a manner such that there is a reliable, statistical relationship between the CS and the US. (Rescorla, 1967) Thus a light can come to evoke defense behaviors usually reserved for a shock. Especially in fear conditioning, behavior doesn’t only come to be controlled by a salient CS, but the very context of the environment in which the US occurs can become a generalized cue that something aversive will occur and can support the expression of fear behaviors.

The process of building this association in Pavlovian fear conditioning is thought to be mediated by the amygdala and the hippocampus - amygdala providing the emotional valence and the response behaviors with the hippocampus mediating an “elemental” construction of the context. Lesions to the basolateral nucleus often precludes the building of this association between context (reality) and the meaning. (Maron, 2004)

Do similar structures mediate my associations between the “seen” wall, the “felt” wall and the cognition of wall (built upon a community of verbal agreement about a statistical mean of what walls are)? While lesions to the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala can preclude the association, other researchers have shown that rats can still exhibit defense behaviors when presented with a context in which an aversive US was presented without them. Maron (2004) suggests that there may be more than one structure mediating even this simple relation - so would a more complex relation require more structures, or will the plasticity of the nervous system prove sufficient again? I would also like to point out that these relations occur in the limbic, or proto-mammilian brian - animal research has shown that there is no need for the neo-cortex or a higly developed syntax or even the arguabling human "I-function" to build relations which sum into a construction of reality with emotional valence or "meaning."

It seems strange to me how great a role statistics play in the construction of reality for humans - from matter to verbal agreement about the location and meaning of "wall."