Thursday, 30 May 2013

Imagining Itself (part II: Absence of Imagination)

Imagination allows us to recall memories at will and to recombine them, in whole or in part, with seeming infinite variety and to use these new combinations to consider, anticipate and respond to possible future events. Imagination is arguably one of the most formidable cognitive tools we possess, one that is surpassed only by consciousness itself, indeed consciousness may well be an impossibility without imagination, since how otherwise could we form a sense of self without the means to knit the many disparate fragments together?

It is tempting to assume that imagination is a singular entity without which life would be reduced to little more than a procession of behaviors bereft of all dimension; a bland succession of preprogrammed or acquired responses. In this conception of imagination its lack would leave us unable to envisage the future nor to learn from the past. Dreams, hopes and aspirations would vanish, whilst desire would be reduced to vague shadow of its current form, plaguing us only in the very moment of encounter with a desirable “object”. Without the means to dwell on our desires we would be mercifully free of that all-to-human agony arising from the expectation of future pain or misfortune, of anxieties played and replayed interminably in the mind’s eye until the moment of reckoning and enlarged beyond all measure in the process. Disappointment too would be unthinkable as would all plans, intentions, failures and successes. But, as it turns out, imagination does not emanate from a single neurological source nor does it suffer total degradation when any one of it’s constituent elements is impeded or damaged.

It is often reported that children on the autistic spectrum lack imagination but, once again, this claim betrays a limited understanding of the nature of imagination (and autism for that matter). As the term “spectrum” would suggest, autism involves a wide gamut of abilities from severe and wide ranging deficits to near normal and even exceptional ability in specific areas. In fact, scientists at King’s College London have recently concluded that about one third of autistic males have “some form of outstanding ability compared with 19 per cent of females.”

Over the last three decades psychologists like Uta Frith or Simon Baron-Cohen have focused attention on what is termed “Theory of Mind” and its associated deficits amongst autistic individuals. Theory of Mind - sometimes also known as “social imagination” - describes the human ability to interpret other people’s desires, beliefs and intentions: to form “metarepresentations” (mental representations of other peoples’ mental representations). What is often observed as a lack of symbolic or pretend play amongst autistic children for instance - whilst previously taken as proof of their overall lack of imagination – is now believed to be closely associated with these characteristic difficulties of inferring and interpreting the thoughts and intentions of others. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for autistic children to have other interests and skills that evidence imaginative engagement. This has lead to speculation, that there may be discrete forms of imagination that are called upon in different circumstances to overcome many of the obstacles that constitute the complex fluctuating environments within which we commonly operate.

If imagination is the product of diverse mental processes, as is increasingly believed, then it follows that different aspects of imagination draw upon a variety of cognitive resources in different proportions and to different degrees. For example, with individuals on the autism spectrum, whilst social imagination may be a significant difficulty for many, varying degrees of difficulty with other forms of imagination may also be present. Furthermore, it is by no means certain that what appears as an instance of say Metaphoric Imagination in one situation would of necessity harness the same cognitive resources in another. And if this is the case, then the challenge of isolating the neurological basis of any singular specific type of imagination could prove daunting if not impossible for future scientific enquiry. However, whilst it is undoubtedly true that imagination is a sophisticated process, the increasingly common tendency to explain its functioning by recourse to ever more finely divided modules or distributed networks may risk clouding the point. Whilst social imagination may be implicated in the difficulties of individuals on the autism spectrum it need not follow that the cause lies with a discrete form of imagination. Just as likely is the possibility that the imagination of individuals on the autism spectrum is perfectly intact but that their cognitive predisposition towards social information and inference is in some way impaired, inhibited or simply diminished.

Brain science still has a lot to discover about the workings of the imagination, but what is already clear is that definitions of imagination that describe it simply as a variation on the ability to form a representation (image, sound, feeling, etc) in the mind, independent of any sensory stimulus are overly reductive and, as much of the following discussion aims to show, may even turn out to be entirely wrong.

The closer we study the imagination the more it turns out to be a tantalizingly elusive phenomenon; a complexity that continues to tax the very brain networks that bring it into being. One of the most challenging issues for theories and research into human imagination is the question of what is known as “mental imagery”. Is it possible, for instance, that what we call mental imagery is nothing like images at all? Parts III & IV will explore the history of this question in order to clarify some of the principal issues that continue to generate considerable debate and disagreement on this subject.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Imagining Itself (part I)

Around a year ago I intended to write a short piece about the limits of human imagination. As I ruminated upon this idea and began to read further on the subject it occurred to me how little I knew about how the imagination actually works or even what it is. Considering the fact that I’m a maker and teacher of art it seemed especially curious that I could have such a vague understanding of what is surely a fundamental component in the creation, not only of artworks but of all manner of human inventions and innovations.

Evidently we can function quite well in the world knowing very little about how we function. Nonetheless, knowledge – accurate knowledge that is – that conforms to what we observe and provides genuine predictive potential, allows us to make more precise inferences about realms of human enquiry that have previously been too murky or too complex to fathom. Our faculties of perception and imagination allow us to get by in the world; to survive, but they also allow us to both raise and in some cases to answer some of the most far reaching questions about what we are and how we operate in the world. The following series of articles therefore seeks to explore some of the most vexing questions that human imagination can ask of itself.

So what is imagination? Is it possible to imagine absolutely anything? We often hear of the boundlessness of the imagination but is there a limit to what can be brought before what is colloquially referred to as the mind’s eye? Is it possible to be talented imaginatively? Can the imagination be improved through practice and might it be argued that artists have more prodigious or vivid imaginations than other people?

Much, if not all, of what we learn in life is the result of experience or education but do we learn to the same extent from the inventions of our imagination as we do from direct experience? Can current neuroscience cast any light upon the role, evolution and functioning of the imagination and, perhaps most importantly of all; are the theoretical foundations upon which the accumulating scientific evidence is built as secure and reliable as mainstream cognitive science and philosophy would ideally wish them to be?

In the following I am going to explore the contention that the imaginations of all human beings – artists included - are indeed limited, and necessarily so. I will examine the evolutionary grounds for this hypothesis and the evidence provided by psychedelic experiences, mental illness, the imagery of art and the struggles of science to conceive of that which exists outwith the bounds of the known. Furthermore I aim to show that human cognitive architecture is far less likely to undergo change - to learn - on the basis of the inventions of the imagination than it is on the basis of perceptual experience. If this is true there may be significant implications for our understanding of learning in general and of education in particular.

In order to examine and substantiate the above questions and claims I have gathered together a wide range of theories and research, both historical and contemporary, which serve to chart some of the most informative and enlightening work that is being, and has been, undertaken in this area. Several sources have been of particular use in this survey and I will provide links throughout for anyone interested in following up the theories and research discussed.

Any thorough account of a complex field of human enquiry or interest is likely to be founded upon previous insights, questions and problems arrived at by others. These forthcoming articles are no different in this respect and I am grateful to everyone who has helped me on this journey. However, more generous and challenging than any other single source as been the advice of Donald Brook whose theories have led me to abandon some of my most longstanding and unexamined assumptions about the nature of perception, mental imagery, representation and ultimately imagination itself. For this I would like to extend to Donald my sincere Thanks.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Representation and Appearance (Part 4 of 4)

This article is the last in a group of four on the subject of appearances and is intended to provide further support for the claim that when we speak of appearances - of one thing ‘looking-like’ something else - we are in fact speaking of how we could represent the thing in question through the use of one or other form of visual representation - most commonly what Donald Brook would define as a “Simulating Representation.”

Several months ago my two year old son went through a phase of exclaiming “Same!” whenever he saw two identical things; toy figures and character cards especially. One thing I could never get him to do though was say “same” when presented with an object and its representation. Two pictures could be the same and two action figures could be the same but an action figure could never be the same as a picture of the action figure. Obviously a single test-subject is poor proof of principle but it seems highly likely that this would be the case for all children at the same stage of early language development. Pictures are not the same as objects, that’s pretty obvious, but what is far from obvious is quite what distinguishes representations from the things they represent but the difference is far from simply a question of physical dimension.

Donald Brook defines three fundamental forms of representation. Only two of these are really needed here, so for the sake of brevity I’ll simplify (anyone wishing to find out more can read here). The first form of representation is what Brook terms “Matching”. Matching representations rely on the fact that we are unable to discriminate between certain things, or properties of things, because they are genuinely alike in certain respects. A prime example would be a circular paint chip halved. In a whole variety of ways these two halves would be indisciminable from one another: colour, thickness, shape, reflectance etc. Even if we were to examine them through the use of modern technologies we would probably find more ways in which they match than ways in which they differ. In this sense we can say, with a high degree of certainty - although we may be mistaken - that the respects in which they match are objective such that any other species of perceivers would also find it equally impossible to sensorily discriminate between them in these same respects.

It might be objected that the two chips are not representations of each other. It is certainly true that there is nothing intrinsically representational about either of the chips, yet it just so happens that we can use one to refer to the other: I can substitute one for the other, for example by holding one up and asking: “Have you got the another one of these?” In such a situation I would be using one chip to draw your attention to the other chip by dint of their matching characteristics. Equally, I could focus on just one matching characteristic by holding out three 1p coins for instance and saying: “Do you have this many 2p coins?” If you were in possession of sufficient coins, you could match my 3 with your 3 in respect of quantity and coinage. The coins might be different in all manner of other respects but in respect of quantity and coinage (which were the required attributes of the request) they would match perfectly. The primary point to bear in mind here is that we are able to substitute thing A for thing B if they are genuinely the same in one or more appreciable respects.

Another paradigm case of a matching representation is provided by two identical copies of the same photograph. Just as with the game “Snap” we are able to use one image as a match of the other in a whole variety of respects. However - and this is where we move on to another vital form of representation defined by Brook as “Simulating Representation” - the two images are not just potential matching representations of one another, they are also simulating representations of whatever was registered upon the once light-sensitive emulsion coating their surfaces.

Simulating representations are appreciably different than matching representations and are dependent upon systematic limitations of our perceptual makeup that, in certain circumstances and in certain respects, leave us unable to discriminate between things that we know with absolute certainty are different. With one eye closed I can hold up a pencil in such a way that it is indiscriminable in height from a distant telegraph pole. I know that it is not the same height but when it is held in careful alignment I cannot perceive a difference in their respective heights. Similarly I can mix a quantity of paint that simulates the colour of distant mountains viewed through hazy atmosphere. The colour will not match, yet in certain circumstances (prevailing illumination especially) we would find it very difficult to discriminate between the colour of the mixed paint and colour of the distant hill viewed through haze.

Cinematography, photography, representational painting, and representational drawing are predominantly simulating representational media, although they often also incorporate various aspects of matching: a mug shot might match its subject in terms of facial symmetry, proportional relationships of features, quantity of eyes, nose and mouth etc. The point to bear in mind about simulating representations is that they are an incredibly sophisticated form of representation that has been gradually developed over many centuries and particularly since the discovery of perspective, photography and the moving image to become an indispensible part of the modern world. Despite the fact that we find it immensely difficult to discriminate between simulating representations and the things they represent in certain respects and in certain circumstances we know categorically that simulating representations are simulating representations. Nobody, unless placed under very specific perceptual constraints, has ever mistaken a simulating representation for reality.

When we speak of the appearance of something, there are broadly two respects in which we might use the word. Firstly we might wish to draw attention to the objective properties of an object. We might say of a red ball that “It has a scarlet appearance”. We might even say that “The red ball appears red”. Notice though that the use of the word "appearance" is somewhat redundant in this second example. If the ball is red then we would be more likely to say: “The ball is red.”

The second and much more common use of the word “appearance” is the use I have been exploring in these last few posts (and their associated and sometimes lengthy comments). In this sense appearances are analogous to simulating representations: we know that appearances are not objective properties of objects but we find ourselves almost instinctively compelled to describe the appearance as "looking-like" something else; as being plausibly substituted by a representation of this appearance. The reason we are compelled to do this is because we have become so adept as a species at making, selecting accepting and offering visual representations of the things that we perceive that  this prodigious ability has become second nature; we are almost completely unaware of it.

The final challenge that I would lay before any philosopher on this subject then is this: out of every conceivable appearance of this latter kind (the kind that we know not to be an objective property of things seen) there is not one, not a single one, for which you, or anyone else for that matter, could produce a matching representation. Why? Because appearances are strategies for producing simulating representations: the type of representation that exploits systematic limitations in our sensory capabilities.