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From the I-function to the story teller

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 color (among other things) is "constructed" rather than a property of physical entities independent of an observing brain, and that different brains may differently construct such things. This in turn suggests that the I-function is more generally a "story teller" and provides further evidence of an important bipartite feature of the architectual organization of the human brain. Which in turn implies what? opens what new questions?

evanstiegel's picture

I feel as though last week

I feel as though last week in our reality discussion I may have been confused or misunderstood by what we meant by "reality".  So, I will try to re-explain how I see this.  I will begin with the tree falling in the woods analogy.  Okay, there is no eardrum to hear the vibrations that the fall produces.  But the truth is that the tree still fell even though there was no one around to see or hear it, it was displaced from its previous position.  And, in this tree to be displaced from its previous positions, vibrations would have been emitted.  Maybe the tree falling does not produce sound (as we know it) but a phenomenon occured.  This is how I see reality.  The occurence of a phenomenon does not need a human.  Things happen whether or not a human is there to see, hear, taste, touch, or smell it.  For the idea about color, I understand that color (again, as we know it) is a construction, but objects, whether or not there is a human to "see" them, these objects are still emitting light of a certain wavelength, and that is reality.  I hope I have done an adequate job of articulating myself, sometimes I have trouble. 
eambash's picture

What I find most fascinating

What I find most fascinating about the idea of taking in, or being altered by, other people's false "realities" or perspectives on reality is the part about it that's integral to every interaction and to every definition of reality. Considering the pervasive nature of the falsity and of the effect everyone has on everyone else, is it even possible to say that the view, system, or reality being affected was at all pure or "true" to begin with? In thinking about the nervous system, it seems as if we're finding a way to account for falsity not just coming from without but also coming from within -- from the I-function's always unique way of functioning, from physical and chemical differences, from randomness, from molecular habit. Maybe in order to account for the seeming reality of the story that each of us tends to know, we can say that the story is always false but that it's a pattern of little stories, a system of ways of thinking that we each get used to using and that we each use to filter our interactions with other people's systems.
EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Internalization of false reality

Aside from being theoretically fascinating, the suggestion/fact that reality is constructed within the brain and can be therefore constructed differently for different people is a real life challenge – that many people face all the time. Often times I find myself thinking, how can I make you see this the same way I do? And while, that’s what supposedly makes discussion more interesting, I think the more interesting discussion comes from how it is that people can change other people’s reality. Do you have to have a gift? Do you have to be a PHD holding professor of neurobiology? I don’t really think so. I think the amazing thing is that anyone, at anytime, is capable of altering someone else’s reality (maybe without even realizing it). And yet at the same time, while anyone is capable of changing your reality, it is not always a guaranteed success. In some ways that is good, in others, it is really sad. Internalization of false reality is scary, but real. And just to quickly make some attempt to tie into the blog prompt, how do you tell your story, when you and I-function have internalized a false reality? Through therapy, people learn to see themselves in different ways; does this change their stories? How is a therapist able to identify these false realities? How does she decide to set the story straight?
Rica Dela Cruz's picture

I agree that reality is

I agree that reality is always a hypothesis. I don't think anyone can ever know for sure what reality is and whether one "true reality" really exists. Everyone is different and has a different I-function so everyone must experience different realities. How can anyone say they are truly seeing the same picture as another person even when these two people are looking from the same view?  I may agree with another person that an object is blue, but I will never truly know if what that person is really seeing is what I too think is blue because I only see what I can see and not what others see. What if it was possible that what I see as blue is what another person sees as what I believe to be red and that person only agrees that the object is blue because she's been taught that the color on the object is blue (but really if I were looking through that person's eyes, I would see red). These speculations lead me to agree that what I perceive as reality actually is a construction of the nervous system then. This is still not to say that one true reality does not exist, however. 

Like this question of reality, it is hard to tell what the world would look like if we were to eliminate all constructions. Again, how can we ever know if we only sense what we experience?

This leads me to the question of whether everything the majority of people say that is not real, such as dreams, ghosts, magic, imaginary friends, etc., could possibly be real. It could be real and we just call it imagination. Maybe we just need to fix the definition of imagination. 

 This is getting really trippy.... 

Madina G.'s picture

More on Reality and Color

It truly is intriguing that we have all found some manner of connecting with each other our perceptions of colors, in a way so that we all have the same "language" about them. Yet doesn't this ability to establish this kind of "reality" defy what some were saying that everyone has their own "reality" which is valid by their own perception? People who are colorblind have some sort of defect within their retina, and the way they perceive the world is consequently termed "defective" on this account. Do their I-functions need to work extra hard to construct a story that is more in line with societal constructions of reality as opposed to relying on a story that would satisfy the way their retina receives information upon spotting a color?

I was also fascinated by the notion that there is some sort of correlation between colors and moods, perhaps having something to do with their wavelengths pointed out by Margaux. I'm more inclined, however, to attributing this phenomena to the level of active cones and rods in our retinas. In Seasonal Affective Disorder for example, people experience depression according to how much light is reaching their retina, and as we already know lots of light translates into more active cones. The amount of light, or rather the amount of cones, results in a change in the amount of serotonin and melatonin levels that consequently influence moods. Just like the way the amount of activated cones has an effect on moods we can apply this model to the question about colors. If different colors have different effects on human moods, than it may be due to the types, or subsets, of cones that are activated at that time (M,L or S). Again, this is determined by the amount of light that hits the retina. Therefore, can't we gather from this that the amount of light, not the particular wavelength of the color, is the reason for the differences in moods that are often observed? After all, in a dim or dark room, the color green could look almost brown or black and would have the opposite effect of what one would expect.
Jessica Krueger's picture

Sky is something the brain does

I fear I'm going to make myself unpopular and disagree with Molly's eloquent tripartate hypothesis of reality - everything we've discussed, every reality we've encountered, every mutual experience has all been mediated by salt water rushing into and out of.


All three of the realities discussed come to us and are interpreted by our brains; they are thus all subjective and subject to the same error as a "private" reality. While it cannot be denied that there is verbal agreement in the community as to the location of a wall, or a rock, or a planet, the only reason you know it's there is because someone saw fit to pass air past their vocal chords, which in turn struct your tympanum, was translated into electrical signals and constructed in your head as whatever you experience sound to be.

I wouldn't be surprised to discover years from now as our understanding of the cabling of the brain beings to flourish that we do perceive our subjective realities very differently. All you've experienced is background, with salient CSs associated with meaning by participating in a verbal community. What if it turned out that my auditory cabling shunts information solely to where most people process what they see? Much as a congentially blind person cannot fathom blue, my experience is such that what most people hear I experience as sight - because I cannot get out of my box I'd be none the wiser, kind of like an ex-boyfriend of mine was unaware that he had two uvula until someone took a good look.


A question for Professor Grobstein -

At the beginning of this dissection of sight, Professor Grobstein asserted that much the same processes are in play for the perception of other senses. However, one sense in particular is very different in the way it is processed in the brain, and I'm wondering if this may also allude to the I-function not only as story-teller, but as a definer or map-maker if you will. Smell runs from the olfactory bulbs straight to the proto-mammalian amygdala in the limbic system - it is not mediated by any of that wonderful neocortex we're so proud of. I have also read somewhere that cross culturally smell is not only an incredibly emotionally valent sensation, but that on the whole we as humans lack words to describe it.

I put forth, then, that the I-function is repsonsible in part of compartmentalizing "reality" into seemingly distinct senses by allowing our "higher" processes to interpret the information differently - the perception comes not only from what proteins we have to sense with, but also how it's put together. I cannot account for where or how this process occurs, but it seems to me that smell may harken back to a proto-mammalian synesthesia: it is tightly bound with another perceptive event (affect) and does not lend itself to critical analysis in daily discourse for a simple lack of words. I am guessing not being able to parse out the subjective experience of smell into words is a consequence of less cognitive processing and splitting of the experience before it is fed to whatever the I-function is. Synesthetes do not disprove this conjecture - instead they maintain vestigal proto-mammalian higher connectivity, and even this augmented perception has been shown to be subject to higher processing influences: one study found that color-grapheme associatations could be set by a childhood set of magnets.

In sum - I'm not necessarily saying that there's nothing out there. I'm just saying that just because you and your friend know about it doesn't make it anymore true than if you yourself knew it because it's all mediated by a system dedicating to constructing something by breaking it along characteristic fault lines which may actually have no bearing anywhere outstide of your head.

Anna G.'s picture

I don't think your really

I don't think your really disagreeing with Molly. Obviously our brains process everything we think we know, but that doesn't mean that there can't be constructs outside our own individual brain.


Like Molly said, collective reality is the reality that is converged upon by the majority of people. Each of whom has subjectively processed it, yes, but the difference between subjective reality and collective is that an individual’s subjective reality may differ what the majority has accepted as reality.


And in the case of objective reality, no one is asserting we know what the objective reality actually IS. Only that it is out there and we can all perceive of it in different ways.


So in reality, we HAVE discussed 3 different types of reality. While their definitions may need refinement (if that’s necessary) and while their may be more types, I do believe that these three exist and are useful ways to look at reality, other than simply saying we process information in our brain so it's subjective.



Lyndsey C's picture

Very Confused!

This might be backtracking a little, but I am still stuck on our discussion about light and color, and how the world is, in reality, colorless. I am so confused! Basically what I have taken from our discussion last week is that color is constructed by our brains and is assisted by functioning cones and rods. this color perception appears to be a creation of the I-function, at least according to what I've gathered from class. now i am REALLY confused because originally i conceptualized the I-function as being that which enables our voluntary awareness, and clearly color perception is coded in the unconscious (i can't force myself to become unaware of color and at the same time it is interesting that i have always perceived color involuntarily.) so now i wonder if the I-function is really what we described it to be in past classes and i wonder if this ever evolving process of defining the I-function is actually getting us anywhere, or bringing us closer to "getting it less wrong." Not to be cynical, but I've almost forgotten our original question for this class and i feel as though we have moved in a completely different direction than we intended. perhaps this is the whole idea! we are SUPPOSED to explore these different pathways of thought in order to come to different conclusions even if they do not necessarily wind up answering our original questions.
I was also confused about the idea of color and how when we see a color, it means that all the light waves are being absorbed EXCEPT that which we see. in other words, an orange is orange because all of the light waves are being absorbed in that particular body of matter except for orange. is this observation correct? and if so, what implications does it have for our current discussion about color being a construction of the brain and not necessarily reality? does this mean that dogs (who only see gray shades) are RIGHT since the world is actually gray in reality? this makes me think of that terrible movie Pleasantville where everything in the world is gray until the society acquires knowledge (or is it sin?) which enables them to eventually see in color. is seeing color better? why, evolutionarily speaking, do we see color and other animals do not?
Paul Grobstein's picture

getting it less wrong, at multiple levels

Yeah, sorry, I slipped up. I should never have said that the world is actually colorless (or words to that effect); it was a quick way to make a point but importantly misleading in the longer run. The point is that the world (what seems to be "out there") doesn't have color; we construct that. The world doesn't have black and white either; we (and dogs) construct that too. What would the world look like if we eliminated all constructions? My guess is that that is a question without an answer, ie that there is no "look like" without 'constructions".

Not sure where the confusion about who is creating color came from. Apologies if I somehow contributed to that too. Color is clearly NOT created by the I-function, but is seen by it. That help?

K. Smythe's picture

Back to reality...


         One thing that these discussions have left me doing is questioning everything that I personally "perceive", and the verbalized perceptions of those around me.  It seems to me that reality is a construction of may different inputs and boxes and I-function interpretations of those inputs and boxes (and actions created by the I-function itself).  The problem that still remains is that every person's I-function, boxes in our nervous system model and interpretation of inputs could potentially (and it seems to me are) different. 

          The intriguing point to me is how these differences are formed.  We talked earlier about how we only perceive those things that we have the proteins to perceive and that not everyone has the same proteins; however is it just random genetic mutation/selection that creates this variability, is it hereditary, socially constructed, or based on individual experience, and where does evolution tie into the whole mess?

         It is interesting also that regardless of what reality is objectively, subjectively, or collectively we have learned as a species to relate to one another regardless of the differences that exist between our individual perceptions of the world.  To me this is the important point, regardless of what is "really out there" or what isn't really out there, we have formed language that we agree upon, we have sophisticated communication system and have found a way to line up our realities so that we can connect to other who exist in our reality, and presumably they feel they can connect to us.  Whatever that connection is/means to the two individuals may vary greatly, but both parties are interested enough in the agreed upon reality/each other to stick around.


Sophie F's picture

If different brains

If different brains construct the same things differently, does this mean reality is of infinite potential? How do we shape our realities and affect the ways in which other peoples’ realities are constructed? This seems to put us back in the realm of Emily Dickinson, who posited the infinite capacity of the brain to interpret and shape one’s world, with the I-function (her version of it) serving as one component of experience. If the nervous system is wired so that we only physically can see a portion of what exists, does that make everything else less “real?” Is reality relative? Sometimes, the nervous system and the I-function receive different information or generate different inputs and corresponding outputs, are both “real?” Is one more real than the other?

When people conflate senses, seeing color as numbers or experiencing pain as color for example, does this synesthesia constitute reality? “Synesthesia is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. In addition to being involuntary, this additional perception is regarded by the synesthete as real, often outside the body, instead of imagined in the mind's eye. It also has some other interesting features that clearly separate it from artistic fancy or purple prose. Its reality and vividness are what make synesthesia so interesting in its violation of conventional perception. Synesthesia is also fascinating because logically it should not be a product of the human brain, where the evolutionary trend has been for increasing separation of function anatomically” R. Cytowic, "Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses" Springer-Verlag, NY (p.1) Taken from:

If reality can be seen as a construction of the nervous system, and the role of the I-function to provide a system of checks and balances, this lends itself to the I-function providing context and texture, color, of sorts, to experience. And also, it enables the possibility for two people to see the same things differently and for one person, over time, to alter her perceptions. How is “self” defined? Is self then just another perception, a construction of the nervous system? The I-function must both generate and shape reality…

I’m not sure about the notion of “ultimate reality.” This reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave: We give names to concepts, to abstract ideas and to that which we can hold in our hands. As per Plato’s interpretation, the very act of naming something does not make it real, nor does it mean we can “know” that thing. Is the tangible world a cave? Is “real” what we conceive of in our heads, the concepts, which are universal, as opposed to things we “see” and attribute meaning based upon our cultural values, experience and expectations? Does then our knowledge of the existence of certain things or belief make things less real? So the things to which we give names and posit as ‘”real” are not as real as our perceptions… No two I-functions are identical so no two realities can be identical.

Angel Desai's picture


This is a really cool discussion! However, I wonder if maybe we're reading too much into the different "types" of reality that exist and whether absolution is applicable. Perhaps part of the purpose behind discovering that everyone "sees" things differently is ultimately an argument for some sort of cultural relativism...there is no absolute truth since perception is in the eye of the beholder, and therefore we cannot claim superiority of one viewpoint over another. For me, this sort of explanation makes me forget its neurobiological underpinnings and leaves me more confused...


The problem with believing in such a relativistic world is that there is no ultimate value system against which we can hold people accountable. While I agree that we should not consider people with different world views "abnormal," to say that every single person's reality is in some way acceptable, implies that action which is considered universally "bad" might actually be okie if that action is within the realm of an individual's personal reality. And doesnt this entire discussion suggest that there must be some ultimate reality against which all other realities are compared?



nasabere's picture

Excellent Points

Excellent points.

1. A relativistic world would be inconvenient for us, no doubt. We are creatures of order, and hierarchy simplifies things for us. However, I think that it is important that we stay away from words like "acceptable" and "better" as they carry moral implications. Rather, from a purely objective standpoint I believe the idea is simply that all realities are equally “real” (or not real, whichever way you care to look at it) hierarchies and morals aside.

2. I don't know that this discussion necessarily implies that there must be "an ultimate reality against which all other realities are compared." The converse could easily be true. Reality could be infinite. Then again, that's a lot of different possibilities in terms of neural connections. Does that then translate into commonly invoked "there is no truth" argument? No...perhaps "truth" is the very notion that infinite realities exist…but I digress…

Anna G.'s picture

Like Angel, I was concerned

Like Angel, I was concerned about this when in class we began stating that no one reality was more valid than others. To me, it seems like we can state that one view of better than another. Of course "better" refers to a subjective choice, but in certain cases a "better" reality does in fact exist.


In the show Heroes, there is one character who has a violent side that kills in order to protect her son, but she hides this side from her "normal" side. Her "normal" reality thinks that her husband killed the people that she really killed, and she is able to live a normal, productive life, despising the act she believes her husband committed. When she begins to realize it was actually herself, she becomes crazy, and ends up acting so insane that she turns herself into a mental asylum. In this case, I think we can say that her "normal" reality is better. She acts as a productive member of society. Her "insane" reality kills people, which ends up hurting her husband, as well as the people she killed. Not good. When her two realities begin to meld, she becomes unbalanced, and can't function.


While I don't think it's necessary to judge every thought and action to determine whose reality is "best," I do think that there are extreme cases, in which we can clearly say that the reality is unstable. But the interesting cases aren't in the extremes, it’s more interesting to see how small differences make up different small individual realities, in which case, yes it is difficult to say which is more valid.

Emily Alspector's picture

If a tree falls....

When Professor Grobstein asked the class if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound, i automatically said, "of course it does"...i fell for the trap. And while I understand the difference now, I'm not sure that's the point of that age-old question. While it's interesting to think of that in terms of waves and our nervous system's translation into "sound", it's also important to not forget what I always thought to be the real meaning behind that question: what is reality outside of the self? As finite beings, it is impossible for us to fathom what is "real" and what is a "fabrication", and even where the two overlap. However, this discussion striked me as particularly interesting because it's not one I often considered. When first asked that question, I always knew/believed the answer was yes, but then comes the question, If a tree falls and no one is there to see it, did it actually fall? I realize that may sound completely twisted, but if our ears are capable of "fooling" us into hearing what might not be "reality", then whos to say our eyes aren't also fooling us as well. And I'm not talking about the nervous system making stuff up where there are "holes" as we discussed in class, I'm talking about life, reality, all being just way off base. I really enjoyed the story Professor Grobstein told about the blind community gauging the eyes of the two "crazies" because it really puts things into perspective. What is life outside of our world?
I also really liked Maggie's comment about this alteration of reality as being an adaptation, which just makes me think of the Matrix with Keanu Reeves, but is nonetheless a really cool thought.
Jessica Varney's picture

More questions about eliminative reality

Like Zoe above me, I've been thinking about The Matrix for days. The line that first did it for me was when Morpheus says, "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."

In trying to grapple with Professor Grobstein's suggestion of an eliminative reality, the best I've got is more questions. I found the idea of imaginating an eliminative reality interesting and challeging, so here's what I came up with:

If we were to somehow able to eliminate color and edges, then what would we be seeing at all? At best, maybe brightness (light intensity)? Going one step further, if we eliminated all forms of sensory input, would we wind up with pure "reality" or, as a consequence of terminating all forms of input into the nervous system, would the system just crash?
Skye Harmony's picture

cross-cultural color effects

I find the psychological effects of color very interesting. Like many other phenomena we have discussed, these are influenced by culture and personal experience. For example, the color of placebo pills can change their effect; red and orange pills tend to act as stimulants, while blue and green pills tend to act as depressants. However, blue placebo pills have a stimulating effect on Italian men- probably because blue is the color of the national football team. (near the end of this article: I wonder, then, why there are so many cross-cultural similarities in color effects. Could it be that humans are hard-wired to perceive different “colors” (actually combinations of wavelengths of light) not only visually, but emotionally? As mcrepeau suggested, it could be related to brightness and an internal clock. I wonder why it would be beneficial to evolve this way…

Margaux Kearney's picture

I also find the

I also find the psychological effects of color very interesting! I was surfing the internet and came upon a site that discussed color and culture. In Jan Van Eyck's painting of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, the bride is wearing a green dress as a symbol of her fertility. The color white is considered to be an inappropriate color for weddings in China as it is the color of mourning. ( I also read that when London's Blackfriar Bridge was painted green, the suicide rate dropped 34%. Why do we associate specific colors with emotions/feelings or beliefs? Do the different light intensities or wavelengths affect our bodies in particular ways?

Zoe Fuller-Young's picture

Searching for Truth

Has anyone else been thinking about the movie The Matrix throughout this conversation on "reality?" I keep picturing the scene where Neo goes to see the Oracle and the little boy on the floor is bending the spoons saying "do not try and bend the spoon, that's impossible... instead only try to accept that there is no spoon." Anyway, after class I was thining about the I-function as a storyteller, and how it is interesting that although humans may grow up in very different environments and see different types of colors, there are many patterns to color association. What I mean is that although there are different words for blue accross language and perhaps culture, blue for example is often used to describe the sky or water. I wonder if there are multipe languages that also use blue to describe an emotional state like depression? If there is no "real" color, then is it incorrect to call people "color-blind?" It does seem true that they are color-blind in comparison to the way that most people see, because perhaps our I-function, as mentioned in class, has found the most useful way to see the world, and those who see it different do not necessarily loose out on "reality" but have a less useful reality.

Another thing I thought of from mkhilji's mention of racism, is the idea that someone from one race who has never seen anyone who looks different from themselves cannot recognize difference in another race (assuming that there is such  thing). I am not sure if it is true, but I have heard that, for instance, if someone from Japan is raised in relative isolation, i.e. no TV, limited contact with non-Japanese, then there is the possibility that that person will not be able to distinguish between (again, assuming there is a distinguishable category) white Europeans. What does this say about reality and vision?

mkhilji's picture

I really liked Molly's

I really liked Molly's summary of the different definitions of reality. In our little groups on Tuesday I was having the same discussion about how there is no such things as one optimum type of 'reality'--rather we all experience different realities based on our experiences (inputs) and interaction with others. Just as individuals may have different perceptions and opinions about different issues, we all foster different realities. I would argue that our I-function is the storyteller..which is safe to say as it does not necessarily cover the whole picture. Based on our individual experiences our I-function uses those to conjure an image in our mind (or opinion) about different issues.

For example, an individual who has lived a sheltered life would not be exposed to the realities of issues such as racism. Therefore when this individual may read or hear about the issue of racism, or people's encounters with a 'racist'--this sheltered individual has a myopic vision and therefore may not necessarily believe that such a concept exists in the world.

What scares me most about this issue of the I-function being a storyteller, is once again whether we really are able to override our I-functions and 'edit' the view or story that it transmits. Because if everyone's 'world' is really not the same this can draw broader implications about whether deep down any reconciliation has been achieved in the world.

Caroline Feldman's picture

The psychology of color

Colors can have a psychological and physiological effect on all of us. As an artist, a user and manipulator of color, you need to be aware of some of these effects. I was reading an article online about color psychology and physiology and that it is a combination of personal observation and the ideas and observations of two major authors and their books on the subject: The Power of Color by Dr. Morton Walker and Color Psychology and Color Therapy by Faber Birren. These two authors, and the experts they cite, delve much more finely and deeply into this vast area of color theory. I have taken the highlights from these sources just to give you an idea of what it is you are dealing with when considering color.
From this research, it seems that the jury is still out on the definitive psychological effects of color on living things. Yet, certain professionals, such as chromotherapists (therapists who use color for medical purposes), believe color affects us so powerfully that subjecting patients to different colored lights has curative qualities for their various ailments. This is not a new age idea. In his book The Power of Color, Dr. Morton Walker states that
"...The ancient Egyptians, for example, built temples for the sick that were bedecked with color and light. They set aside special colored rooms as sanctuaries where the sick could be bathed in lights of deep blue, violet, and pink. Native American Indians also used color for healing ... to fight chronic illness and to heal injuries sustained during buffalo hunts and intertribal warfare."

This is so interesting. How can different colors affect the brain in different ways?
Jen Benson's picture

evidence for true nature of collective reality?

I think this is really interesting, that since ancient times colors have been used to induce certain moods and states of mental health in people. To me this implies that perhaps there is some common reality innately true to each person, at least in terms of color. If each person saw a different blue then I don’t think this color could be used by so many different people, across many cultures and centuries of time, to induce serenity in people. Even though this suggests that many of us see the same colors, however, I still do not think that we can definitively conclude that objects are the colors that most of us see (who are not color-blind or have too much red or green etc.). All I think we can conclude is that many of us get the same input to our nervous systems and then make sense of it the same way. And I also feel that saying that one reality is more right than another is unnecessary. I really like Molly Pieri’s definitions of reality, particularly that of collective reality. There are things that many of us can agree on as being out there but that this may or may not reflect the ‘real’ reality. Some people in the class have stated their beliefs that we can definitively conclude that some aspects of reality are real, for example, that we were all sitting at a table. I think this goes against the original mantra of the class (that we are trying to just “get it less wrong”) and though I do believe that there is a table there I think there’s a possibility that that idea is merely a construction. I also think it’s possible that colors might merely be a construction of our nervous systems that evolved to help us effectively interact with our environments and with each other (which in turn may or may not be the “best” or most optimal way we could have evolved).
mcrepeau's picture

Effects of color intensity and hue variation on the human psyche

Perhaps some of the psychology behind color and emotion/behavior has to do with the "brightness" (i.e. the vividness of light waves and light waves themselves) of the color in relation to how we perceive gradients of light and how that perception of variations in amounts, intensities of light, etc. affect our behavior in relation to an internal clock. For, example maybe our brains have come to associate darker colors and/or dimmer colors (blues, green, and violets, etc.), colors which often give one the feeling of calm or relaxation, with periods during the day where lesser amounts of light, and therefore, what we consider darker hues of colors prevail, i.e. the particular shades of blues and purples that one sees during Twilight, dusk, etc. prevail. This may work into how our internal clock (sleep v. awake) system works out, where the nervous system has come to associate darker colors with dimmer periods of light and thus with a state in which sleep is conducive. The opposite might be said of bright, vibrant tones in colors such as red, orange, and yellow in which brighter colors may be perceived as indicative of periods of greater light intensity and thus with periods of higher activity and alertness. Of course this has more to do with actual tonality of color, i.e. the intensity and hue of the color and the amount of light available to the eye and not so much with the color itself. Although one may argue that periwinkle and navy blue are, although "blue", are distinct entities in and of themselves and that the two different shade of blues produce different emotional/behavior responses regardless of the lighting condition under which they are viewed. If different shades of a color are affected by what length of light waves are being perceived at the same time (i.e. the combination of light wave types being reflected by an object) and we consider the amount of light available negligible, then, what do these subtle variations and mixtures in light hues and in tones produce as an effect on the human psyche?



Paul B's picture

Real Reality Vs. Fake Reality

This discussion is rather fascinating. I used to think that all reality as perceived by the nervous system was real reality. Since everyone in class will say that we are taking Bio 202 class at Bryn Mawr, the real reality seems to be that we are taking Bio 202 (I guess this falls into the collective reality that Molly was explaining above). However, not all “realities” are real.

The colorblind cannot see red numbers in green backgrounds and vice versa (I’m referring to those colorblind tests with the green and red splotches that form numbers). Their reality says there’s no number in the picture, while others' realities do consists of numbers being in the picture. Which is the real reality and which is the fake one?

It’s a challenge to separate real reality from fake reality. I don’t think we don’t have the ability to differentiate them. Perhaps everything presented to us by our nervous system is a fake reality. Perhaps we're not really taking bio 202. This notion may seem farfetched, but there’s no way to prove or disprove it.

nasabere's picture

Entertain this thought

Why differentiate at all? Perhaps it all boils down to the same thing--after all, how can we invalidate one cellular/molecular process from another? Are the processes occurring in a schizophrenic less tangibly "real" on a molecular level than in a "sane" individual? The fact of the matter is that a process is occurring, period. The process is "real" in a purely scientific sense and this very fact should translate into a "real" reality for the schizophrenic. It is also important to acknowledge that our understanding of the terms "real" and "fake," in relation to our current dialogue, are the product of an innate human propensity to label and define the world around us. I'm thinking that "reality" is really not as black and white as the reductionist within us all might like it be. To me, the issue is not a clarification of the "fake" and the "real". I don't think a single one of us equipped with the capacity to do that. After all, we create convenient “realities” for ourselves on daily basis, “real” or not. Many of us choose to be complacent to issues of social injustice. Our “reality” is set in wealthy main line, at a prestigous institution called Bryn Mawr College, where virtually all basic comforts are provided to us; the crisis at hand is the rigor of an intense academic setting. Is this a pragmatic view of reality? When nearly half the world’s inhabitants live on less than two dollars a day, I beg differ. But who am I to say? My point is that the very phrase “real reality” makes me itch. “Real” is relative—subjective, and I have a hard time basing the sum of my studies on the essence of "reality" and what it means to be "real" on a body of subjective data.

Are our attempts futile? I'm starting to think so. Honestly, I’m ready and willing to retire--to except the possibility that the extent of my perceived experience is fabricated, for whatever reason. In saying that, I also wish to express that this possibility does not necessarily invalidate the human experience. 

jwong's picture

I think this discussion of

I think this discussion of reality and whether or not its existence is true or contrived by our nervous system for us to function is extremely interesting. Could it be that without our nervous system providing us with the intelligence of sense, the world around us really white silent noise? Crazy to imagine, but its something that I was thinking about this past week. I really liked the discussion about the tree falling in a forest and anyone being able to hear it; the response that someone provided to the class was that no, the tree would not make any sound because there was no eardrum available to pick up on the noise and actually hear its effect. To me, this definitely helps to substantiate the idea that the nervous system IS a storyteller, that our processed responses/reactions/interpretations of the outside environment all work together to create an image of reality unique to each person. I guess in a way, we are all living in our own little bubble, complete with the contrived concept of what reality really is in our minds. Our interpretations of the world include our nervous system painting up the rest of the missing picture, even if what it paints isn’t truly there, we make up for what is lacking so that it makes sense to us. Our understanding of the world and the idea of having logic and reason is all based on this need to ground our minds in something solid and relatable to people.

anonstudent01's picture

Personalized Reality?

I can appreciate that because the picture in our heads is not of reality but rather a construction of the brain it is possible to creatively change that picture. However, if given the ability to "eliminate" the edges, colors etc that makes up the picture as dictated by the nervous system, I definitely would not! I would imagine that reality without these defining features would look something like a hazy, kaleidoscopic maze where we would only be able to discern different energies but not forms. Whether the picture in my head is of reality or not, it is what allows me to read my favorite books, see the cherry blossoms and recognize my family members. It would be interesting to see alternate realities or dimensions, but everything that I love and know is in this one and I would not change that. I am glad to be aware of the difference between my I-Function and my nervous system and hope to explore the many facets of reality futher.
maggie_simon's picture

The purpose of the I-function’s construction of reality

I was intrigued by the question of: what does it mean to know something?  It seems that to know something means that, even if the nervous system may not have experienced that something, the I-function has constructed a reality about it.  An idea offered in class by professor Grobstein it that the I-function creates the concept of reality so that it will continually check that reality.  Why does it need to continually check the reality?  (Why create a reality at all?  Why not just live?)  The I-function must be fulfilling some other function by constructing new realities…

I wonder if one function of reworking reality is to learn about and adapt to our changing environment.  Or, perhaps the I-function’s role is important as an inferring mechanism for experiencing those aspects of life that are not picked up through sensory pigments, such as understanding behavior or connecting to other people. 

Since reality is a construct of the mind based on the inputs that the nervous system receives through sensory input, and since it is important for the nervous system to continually be checking that input in case the environment is changing, perhaps these realities are just the I-functions way of keeping track of any input changes with respect to all other inputs to the nervous system.   But why do we have the ability to think about these realities?  

It seems, then, that our ability to access and even change our realities of the world around us and how we interact in it should serve a purpose beyond sensing the world.  We have great power in our ability to change our realities because it means that we can conceive of a world around us irregardless of what the nervous system senses of that world.  Thus, the I-function allows us the ability to try out theories about those parts of the world that we can not actively sense, but can only confer knowledge of through our indirect experience with them.  For example, we are able to make up theories about why other people do what they do by integrating those experiences of them obtained through the senses with those past experiences of interactions with them (based on our I-function’s past realities) saved in memory.  In this way, we can check current input with past input in different situations to see if the way that we are understanding a person’s behavior makes sense.  This seems to be a very good way in which we might use realities and since we are employing those realities to try and understand continually changing situations or entities, it is important to be constantly checking and reworking those realities against new input.

Paul Grobstein's picture

eliminative reality?

Interesting thought from class today. Supposing that we came to understand everything that the nervous system creates in giving us a picture of what is around us, including color and edges/objects and .... ? And we got rid of all that. Would we then see "reality"? What would it look like? Would it be useful?
heather's picture


i think reality might be a very noisy place...
Paul Grobstein's picture

a noisy place

Very interesting. I think you're right ("less wrong"?). See Inverting the Relationship between Randomness and Meaning.

"All the physical and chemical laws that are known to play an important part in the life of organisms are of this statistical kind; any other kind of lawfulness and orderliness that one might think of is being perpetually disturbed and made inoperative by the unceasing heat motion of the atoms" ....... Erwin Schrodinger, What Is Life?, 1944
And it leads on to some new interesting things to explore. Will. Many thanks.
Molly Pieri's picture

Different Definitions of Reality

It seems that recently (both in class and in the forums) we've been debating whether or not there is one reality, no such thing as reality, or maybe even multiple realities. I think that this discussion, at least the discussions in class, may be slightly premature. Or rather, we seem to be skipping an important part of the conversation. Before we tackle the one/none/many reality debate, we need to determine specifically and explicitly what we mean when we use the term "reality".

What we mean when we use the word "real" drastically affects the structure of our discussion and the way in which we approach the debates we have been having in class. Even if we do not all agree to one definition of "reality", having explicitly considered multiple definitions will give us a framework on which to build our discussions. From the class discussions on Tuesday it seems that there are three main definitions of "reality" being considered by our class. These three definitions, which I have taken to calling the "objective", "collective" and "subjective", exist on a continuum.

"Objective reality" is a reality in which apart from our perceptions, there is "something" "out there", and that something is what is real. This is the position which has been supported through our history, first appearing in Plato's Theory of Forms. Under this definition of reality, the unchanging essential truth of the universe is not dependent upon perception. The sound that a tree makes when if falls in the forest is the same regardless of who does or does not hear it, and that is real.

"Collective reality", like objective reality, asserts the existence of "something" "out there", but unlike the definition of objective reality, collective reality holds that we cannot determine reality outside of perception. Instead, collective reality follows a sort of mathematical approach, maintaining that as more and more observations are gathered from different sources, the 'mean value' of these observations will more closely reflect the "something" "out there". Under the definition of collective reality, what is real is that which is determined by consensus.

Finally, "subjective reality" does not assert the existence of "something" "out there". Rather, reality is a personal construction which results from (and results in) perception. Subjective reality holds that what is "real" is the perception itself, not some hypothetical external phenomenon which may cause the perception. Subjective reality has no way of asserting existence outside of perception (nor does it want one). Thus, each person's personal perception results in his or her own personal reality. Under this definition, that which is real is that which is perceived.

These three conceptions of reality are by no means the only definitions of reality, and perhaps I've misrepresented what some of you said in class. If this is the case, I'm sorry and please don't hesitate to correct me, clarify your opinion, or add your own definition of what is real.

Anna G.'s picture

the interplay of realities

I like the way you've kind of summed up what we've discussed in class into 3 distinct types of reality. I'd agree with you that these three definitely play a role in determining what we ultimately consider reality in our everyday life. To me, the interesting question left to consider is how the 3 interplay. I’d argue perhaps they aren’t on a continuum, but rather share and overlap, much in the way that a Ven Diagram does. For example, in Jackie's web paper she discussed people who have ringing in their ears that "isn't there." At what point to people with tinnitus decide that their subjective reality is false and assume the collective reality? Is it only after a doctor tells them what is going on and describes to them the objective reality? And to what degree do they believe their reality when they have conflicting ways to assess the situation?

Jackie Marano's picture

I-function meets I-function

Thanks Anna for referring to the Tinnitus definitely shows that everything that we have been talking about with respect to 'seeing' applies equally to 'hearing'...and likely to every other sense. All of these different ways of perceiving 'reality' seem to be a good transition back into our ongoing discussion of the I-function and its role in the nervous system.

One thing we have discussed perhaps indirectly in class is whether an ultimate 'truth' exists, and how we might go about defining this truth. We mentioned in class on Thursday that people who are colorblind and who are significantly aware of their colorblindness cannot suddenly cure themselves and see as a non-colorblinded person would see. Similarly, as I found out in my research on Tinnitus, those who are aware of the ringing in their ears cannot simply eliminate these 'sounds.' We wouldn't care so much about colorblindness or tinnitus and have associations founded upon seemingly 'flawed' perceptions if we could make them disappear all by ourselves!

So maybe this is where the I-function comes into play. Many I-functions seem to be able to interpret reality from the senses, and perhaps they filter through perceived reality similarly. However, we have noted differences in the filtering of perceived reality among humans, and also within ourselves. I-functions may disagree to some extent with other I-functions (over colors for example), but they also disagree to some extent with the rest of the nervous system (inability to block out ringing in the ears, for example).

What is the meaning of these 'glitches'? Perhaps the most real 'reality' for I-functions is the existence of other I-functions! Perhaps recognition that perceived reality is not the same for everyone (or for every I-function) is MORE REAL than the perceived reality itself! Is this a distant signal from the 'ultimate truth'?

heather's picture


i think that's a good way to think about it - realizing that your own perspective is limited. we know that there is something communicable about reality, since we can all interact with it and even define the parts of which we are aware; but we must keep in mind that we are not seeing reality as it really exists, we are just interpreting it in the only ways we can.

think of all the other properties of matter that we know exist, yet cannot perceive with our eyes... snakes see the world in thermal vision, for example.

we really can't have a clue how much we're missing!

Paul Grobstein's picture

catching up