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Posts Tagged ‘Hofstadter’

WONDERSoftheWORLD: …And we thought EYES were needed to SEE?

In God, perception, psychology, science, Wonders of the World on May 11, 2010 at 6:42 pm

What is so particular about this portrait?

Clinton? No. It’s the artist who painted it.

The Wonder…

I didn’t start out to be an artist.

I just wanted to learn about the world around me that I was living in.

I think I’m starting to know it, but I can’t be sure without feeling it.

Esref Armagan was born without eyes. As a child he grew a passion for drawing objects he was familiar with through touch. “Growing up, he felt socially isolated because of his blindness and would often spend hours alone drawing in the sand and exploring the relief patterns of his figures.”

He learned to associate colors with objects – by far the only thing he learned from his sighted others. Practically everything else in the art he uses, he has discovered on his own.

He would first etch “the image in his mind” on a cardboard. Then picking from systematically arranged oil paints (always placed in the same order for identification), he would apply a color with his fingers. Letting one color dry up in a few days, he will have to be patient before he could apply the next color.

Today he sketches using a stylus that makes raised outlines. He has also come to apply acrylics as they dry more quickly.

The Miracle…

The object must be made into a raised drawing.

I must work for days in order to perceive it in my mind.

I use a putty outline which enables my hands to easily distinguish the lines of the drawing. I do not use a brush. It’s impossible for me to understand whether there’s paint on the brush.

I have to paint with my hands.

The most amazing fact about Esref’s paintings is not that he imagines touched objects’ forms fairly well and represents them accurately on paper. His paintings are at par with any drawn by skilled sighted artists. As specialists studying him have said, his paintings show the right mixture of real world characteristics such as color variation, shadows, light and shade effects, light reflection, contrasts and perspective.

If we focus on a single of these characteristics, we might apprehend the miracle better. Perspective refers to the property of 2D pictures which accurately reflect 3D patterns in space. The modern use of perspective in drawings was considerably advanced by the observation made by Filippo Brunelleschi, who was standing one day before the famous octagonal structure Florence Baptistery in Italy. He noticed that the upper and lower horizontal lines of the walls of the Baptistery (if extended imaginally) converged at the horizon. Using his observation he drew an accurate mirror reflection of the Baptistery. A test of his accuracy was to place his painting beside a mirror facing the Baptistery. Viewers could see that both the representations (mirror and the painting) were indistinguishable.

Dr. John M. Kennedy, a perception psychologist at the University of Toronto, wished to test Armagan’s ability to drawn in perspective using this historical place as a venue. Armagan was not aware of his commission, except that he had to reach a certain place in Italy. Upon reaching, he was guided through a tactile exposure to the Baptistery’s design, seated at the same position as presumably Brunelleschi had adopted, and given the challenge to draw the Baptistery in perspective. Amazingly, Armagan was able to do so; on the other hand, even sighted people often have difficulty in using this artistic technique.

Moreover, his pictures show accurate representations of objects he could never have touched with his hands, such as sun and clouds…. His method of doing portraits highlight this aspect of the living miracle. He would ask a sighted person to draw around a photograph. Turning the page over, he would feel around the sketch with his left hand. And then transfer his feeling onto the paper. One might say that the raised outlines helped him out, but to get the whole face so aptly is certainly out of the ordinary.

The discovery…

Dr. Aamir Amedi is a an Instructor of Neurology at the Harvard Medical School. He and his colleges invited Esref as a single-subject in a brain-scanning study. Esref provides a unique opportunity to explore the brain of a person whose artistic prowess allows him to communicate his internal perceptional experiences in an external form. Scanning Esref’s brain while he was engaged in exploring forms of objects through touch and in drawing a novel object he had never come across before, the following amazing discovery was made:

Activation during drawing (compared to scribbling) occurred in brain areas normally associated with vision, including the striate cortex along with frontal and parietal cortical regions. Some of these areas showed overlap when EA was asked to mentally imagine the pictures he had to draw (albeit to a lesser anatomical extent and signal magnitude).

Interestingly, several areas, most notably in the medial posterior occipital cortex, showed much greater selectivity for drawing compared to all other tested conditions.

Within the occipital cortex, activation specific to the drawing condition was found in occipito-temporal areas …. corresponding to the primary and secondary visual cortical areas (areas corresponding to mid and peripheral visual field representations).

The same brain areas were active in Esref’s mind that are also active in the sighted people’s brain engaged in the same task! It means the brain process taking place inside Esref’s mind was the same on touching objects, as in people when they SEE those same objects.

The interpretation

This finding challenges the preconceived notion that vision (or precisely: the information from environment in form of light-rays) is needed for the ability to see. Here is a man who can imagine things as well as sighted people can, as both his art and the scientific investigation made upon him illustrate! The following explanation by Dr. Kennedy helps us further:

Any differences in definitions of shape and distance are matters more of convenience and habit than of geometrical principle. When the core common to shape and distance is evident, it is easier to understand how touch can achieve distal perception.

Jim Cranford points out that Esref’s extraordinary ability to reflect the world without ever seeing it reflects the working of the organism as an information processing feedback loop. In Jim’s words:

The senses input information from the environment, the perception apparatus, which includes the whole body in it’s scope, produces an internal model of the environment, that the hands use to paint. Remove eyes from the loop and it continues with what is available.

Another explanation (related to the one above) lies in the plasticity of our brains, an idea that has gained acceptance only in the recent decades. The brain can utilize all it’s untapped potential to construct reality so that maximum survival is possible.

Feeling my way around with my fingers has completely erased my blindness. It’s as if I see like anyone else.

The meaning

Most amazing of all, in the whole story, is the realization that somehow Esref visualizes (‘imagines’ is a more accurate word) the outer world as it is by focusing on the shapes, sizes, and distances, and on the patterns formed by these elements just like we do. The only difference is that we rely primarily on vision and he relies solely on touch and actual moving about. Fact is that we too have learned a lot of the information (that creates the perception of the world we are familiar with) through the sources Esref uses but we don’t realize that too often, we are so used to seeing.

One would like to get inside Esref’s mental world and SEE the pictures it shows. Esref himself  comments in the documentary made upon him: nobody can say I can not see.

Esref’s experience reminds us of the concepts of ‘tangled hierarchies’ and ‘strange loops’ Hofstadter developed. Whatever we see, hear or feel is the outcome (a percept) of the underlying system which combines information from diverse sources. Information is nothing but a pattern contained in a series of symbols. The phenomenon of perception is just like the reading off of the larger pattern made up of small and interconnected loops of information.  Our mental world (whether eyes closed or open) is just like reading the meaning contained in the loops, slashes and dots that we call ‘writing’ in combination. Or, it is like getting immersed in the Computer Screen’s display which is nothing but a pattern of pixels. We are not looking at the pattern of pixels though. Our minds are locked onto the patterns of meaning those pixel-patterns represent.

The lesson

#1

Art, on both a technical and conceptual level, externalizes the inner workings of the brain (Zeki, 2001).

Esref’s story once again makes us realize that this world is nothing but a product of our minds.  Surely our minds are subject to certain governing rules that have been programmed into it. Just that. Change the rules and the perception and the world changes. I will here point out my reader to the case of outrageous sensations resulting from a dose of LSD. LSD is not the only relevant example. Think about the profound changes in the percept, given mescalin, meditation, optical illusions, or neurotransmitter disturbances in schizophrenia.  Lesson: all our perceptions are limited by the defining features of the environment we are in. We cannot really go beyond the restrictions imposed on us by the environment and perceive more or differently than we currently can.

وَما هٰذِهِ الحَيوٰةُ الدُّنيا إِلّا لَهوٌ وَلَعِبٌ ۚ وَإِنَّ الدّارَ الءاخِرَةَ لَهِىَ الحَيَوانُ ۚ لَو كانوا يَعلَمونَ

for,  the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play –whereas, behold, the life in the hereafter is indeed the only [true] life: if they but knew this! [Al-Ankabut, 64]

#2

We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Esref’s story also reminds us of that essential limitation of science. It is a tool for testing the certitude of pieces of theory, but the theory and the tools are heavily limited by the limitations in our own perceptions that the lesson one points out to. Since it is not possible for the observer to move outside the FIELD in which the observation must take place, all observations are limited by the definition of the field. All the progress in knowledge made through science is therefore abrupt, jerky, and subject to nullification or heavy modification given a contradictory or unique discovery not made before. Esref’s story merely illustrates the heavy limitations on perception given biological constraints and allowances. But the modern-day scientist’s story illustrates the psychological (or let us say, the spiritual) constraints on perception…

فَإِنَّها لا تَعمَى الأَبصٰرُ وَلٰكِن تَعمَى القُلوبُ الَّتى فِى الصُّدورِ

For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts. [Al-Hajj, 46]




The thing I fear most in life is being asked to  do something I’m incapable of doing.


NOTES

  1. Paintings by Esref Armagan can be viewed on the websites armagan.com and esrefarmagan.com
  2. Esref’s full statements highlighted in blue have been taken from the Volvo S60 Blind Preview documentary.
  3. Kennedy’s perspective challenge to Armagan has been video-recorded in a documentary on Armagan available on YouTube.
  4. Reference to Amedi et al.’s article from which the quotes have been taken:  Neural and behavioral correlates of drawing in an early blind painter: A case study. Brain Research, 1242, 252-62. (2008). Retrieve Online.
  5. Dr. Kennedy’s quote taken from: Kennedy, J. M. (1993). Drawing and the blind. Yale University Press, p. 9. Retrieved Online.
  6. To read my rendering of related concepts that Hofstadter developed in his classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, click here.
  7. Zeki’s quote in Amedi et al (2008) cited above.
  8. Quote in lesson #2 by Robert Pirsig in his famous Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

MIND’S I EXPLORATIONS: Universal self and Perishment

In God, philosophy, psychology on December 12, 2009 at 11:11 am

“The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul” is an anthology of writings on the nature of self and consciousness. Its editors Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett (who have also contributed to this anthology) reflect upon the issues expressed in each piece. Their major take on the issue is on how the physical brain creates the metaphysical mind or soul. However, each essay, since it is centered on a theme of most central significance to humanity, can be read at many levels: psychological, spiritual, social, and neurological.

Borges on self

The anthology begins with a translated version of Borges’ short story piece called Borges and I, which was originally published in his short story collection titled The Maker in 1960. Jorge Luis Borges was a famous Argentinean writer known for his fictions on matters of philosophical and metaphysical significance. In the story referred above, Borges explores themes that are in fact near to all of us by focusing upon his ‘social self’ as ‘someone different’.

Personal vs. the Social self

All of us can experience two distinct sides of us. One is our inner nature, the true us, that only we have real access to.  This is the inner side that God refers to when He says:

وَلَقَد خَلَقنَا الإِنسٰنَ وَنَعلَمُ ما تُوَسوِسُ بِهِ نَفسُهُ ۖ وَنَحنُ أَقرَبُ إِلَيهِ مِن حَبلِ الوَريدِ

 Translation: NOW, VERILY, it is We who have created man, and We know what his innermost self whispers within him: for We are closer to him than his neck-vein. (Sura Qaf, ayah 16)

The other is the more public side, composed of our outward behavior, our appearance, our sayings and doings, open for all the observers. This is the social self and our social self varies according to each different context that we enter in our lives.

This distinction also relates to a more basic subject-vs.-object distinction in nature. A subject can be said to be an observer, a being that is conscious, that knows. Whereas, an object is simply a thing that is observed.  Thus all subjective beings themselves are available as objects for others’ observation. Here, Borges is treating his own ‘objective’ side as something distinct from him, the subject.  

The Persona

As you will read the essay, you will see that Borges is aware of the ’empty’ and ‘artificial’ quality of the social facade to which others react with awe and admiration given that this social facade belongs to a famous person. Even though, most of us are not famous, still we can related to this feeling of discomfort when we are the focus of others’ attentions. We can feel the essential distance that remains between the real us and the ‘presentation’ we are giving before others. This presentation rarely matches the original inner story as it is. In simple words, there may be only a few rare relationships where we are able to interact spontaneously and genuinely without any distortion or gaps introduced. We have to mold our urges and impulses into behavioral patterns that will be acceptable in the situation we are in.

Carl Jung  in his analytical psychology, called this ‘medium’ or ‘the point-of-contact’ between the real us and the society out there as persona. He literally described the persona as a mask. Borges seems to be painfully aware of the empty and fake nature of his mask and feels averse to it.

But the story of self is not this simple.

The Shadow

Persona is a reality of life, a process that is necessarily there, that cannot be by-passed. Most of us do feel uncomfortable more or less when our persona is activated but still we accept it as a necessary compromise. The fact that Borges is feeling so averse to this persona hints to other things.

Our self-awareness is never complete. At birth we have been born with a myriad of tendencies, not all of them have had a chance to come out in the open yet. While one reason for our full potentialities not being conscious is that we have not encountered the environment which naturally evokes and instills those latent capacities; another important reason is the discouragement and punishment we receive from our elders in our up-bringing when our skills and tendencies are expressed in forms that they consider as undesirable. Urges and impulses arising from these hidden potentials then remain unconscious – what Jung had called as the personal unconscious. There was also a more colorful term to reflect this layer of the self: the Shadow.

The word shadow has a negative connotation. It is so because of the negative feelings often associated by our repressed/suppressed tendencies: the original shame, embarrassment, or hatred caused when we received our punishments, whether verbal, physical or nonverbal.

When we confront those same tendencies in others (other ‘objects’ so to speak), we react negatively. In a way we ‘project’ our own ‘weaknesses’ on to the objects around us and feel averse. Since Borges has treated his persona as an object, he now projects his shadow onto it and feels averse. Notice all the negative qualities of that other Borges he cites in the short piece.

When he says things like: “I am giving over everything to him” he shows that he is more and more realizing that the real source of all the attributes of the shadow is his own unconscious. He cannot conveniently shoulder the blame on to the ‘demands of the social situation’.

However, the interesting point is that even where he acknowledges some valid accomplishment by this Borges, he is humble: He attributes his creations as a writer to ‘the language’ and ‘the tradition’ and says: “what is good belongs to no one”. Why is he saying so? Herein is actually a reference to a much more deeper and broader level of unconscious that Jung also conceptualized:

The collective unconscious

If what is good belongs to no one to whom does it belong then? Where does it come from then?

Borges is showing the sophisticated awareness that those ‘breezes’ of thoughts and ‘waves’ of feelings that we attempt to transform into words are rooted much deeper inside us than we may think. The range of our self-awareness is very short: at surface we think so and so, we are impressed by so and so. In reality, we have no idea what is the rootcause, the real source of that idea that urge; what was it in some external provocation that held us so strongly in its grip that we were stunned or awed or else were moved so gravely by it.

According to Jung, this deep source of everything, that cannot be consciously traced by us is actually the treasure-house of the whole range of human potentialities that we bring into this world, and that is common across all of us. If you think, every single bit of thought, inspiration, motivation, fear, desire, need, that we have had is not ‘originally ours’, not experienced by us and only us in the world. Thousands of people have experienced the same thing before. The unique combination of our experiences may indeed be ours but not the ingredients. This is what Borges means when he says what is good really belongs to none and this is the same idea that we encounter repeatedly in the Quran…

The universal Self

Jung identified several distinct ingredients (he called them archetypes) of this collective unconscious, the one most relevant here is the concept of the Self (or the objective psyche). Self actually is the harmounious human totality, in which all our diverse, and often opposite tendencies come together. As our Ego (the plainly conscious self, in Jung’s theory) comes to realize over the course of years, that the same people, objects and institutions often evoke very different and ambivalent responses in us: love hate, dependence independence, acceptance rejection, trust suspicion. To a more or less extent, the maturing Ego comes to understand and accept these apparent discrepancies, to resolve them or to reach and bring out in the open the complicated causes leading to such complicated responses. As this happens, we can say that the Ego is now more in line with the universal self. In Jung’s terms the Ego is becoming more and more individuated into or identifying with the Objective Psyche.

But this process is not easy. There are lot of anxieties on the way, a lot of fears to be encountered. The most significant fear is the threat of losing one’s individuality, realizing that one is nothing more than a human, nothing above and beyond a human, just that. I personally feel that it is this same fear that stops many of us from fully identifying with our God and from realizing our essential smallness and nothingness in His Omni-Presence.

With the fear of being nothing is tied the fear of ‘ending’ or ‘perishing’. What is a drop in a river? The river will keep flowing, but a drop…. might ‘not exist’ the next moment.  It is these fears that make the fictional Borges run away from the ‘shadow’ – the shadow which is actually a doorway, a threshold onto the much deeper layer of the collective unconscious in which resides the universal self… It is the same fear that makes Borges say: “my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.” (from the translation in the Mind’s I).

To sum up:

 وَجاءَت سَكرَةُ المَوتِ بِالحَقِّ ۖ ذٰلِكَ ما كُنتَ مِنهُ تَحيدُ

Translation: And [then,] the twilight of death brings with it the [full] truth – that [very thing, O man,] from which thou wouldst always look away! – (Sura Qaf, ayah 19)

Notes:

A nearly identical translated version of Borges’ piece along with the orginal in Spanish can be read here.

A different, more elaborated and somewhat scholarly version of this essay I wrote before this post which I am considering for publication. If it was published, I would share the link. JazakaAllah for your constant readership.