Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XI: Imagination and Experience)

When thinking about the limits of the imagination it might be helpful to ask if the experiences brought to mind are ever wholly satisfying or complete. It strikes me that this is very rarely the case, except as it pertains to ideas (and even where ideas are concerned there is little satisfaction in an idea that cannot be utilised or shared). As regards experience, the products of imagination - as experiences - are little more than intangible and therefore sensorily bereft phenomena. I’m reminded of the curious shop that Alice encounters in her journey through the looking glass:
The oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.” Lewis Carroll
No matter how sublime, extravagant or abundantly furnished our imaginings might seem, there is always something characteristically incomplete about the experiences evoked - something that only the world of sensation and perception can fully satisfy. Nonetheless, there are several forms or configurations of the imagination that are, at times, deeply satisfying, moving or convincing. Dreams and hallucinations, for example, are often so potent that our body’s autonomic processes are triggered by the sheer intensity of the responses involved. These autonomic responses are a vital part of many, if not all, of what we might think of as satisfying, overwhelming or complete experiences. In order for us to feel sated by food for example, not only do our mouths and tongues need to be stimulated with pleasant textures and flavours but our stomachs need to register the physical presence of food which then triggers a further cascade of unconsciously regulated processes, one of which results in a conscious perk: the feeling of satiation.

It should be noted though that confusion often arises here regarding the relationships and distinctions between sensations, perceptions, experiences and responses. Strictly speaking an imagined event, memory, dream or hallucination is not an experience. I realise this is may seem controversial, but to remember something is not to re-experience it, even in a fragmentary or diminished sense. To remember something is to acquire one or more of the responses that correspond to the experience of the thing or event in question. Such responses are defining characteristics of perceptual experience but they are by no means solely constitutive of it. Sensory input is also required and if the ongoing sensory input contradicts or distracts from the memory then it may be necessary to blot out the interruption by closing one’s eyes or covering one’s ears etc. in order to focus one’s attention and to more deliberately elicit the associated responses.

It is hardly surprising then, that we should find memories, dreams and hallucinations difficult to distinguish from perceptions. The very same responses are involved, and these are especially likely to seem vivid or realistic if some monitoring, filtering or verificatory portion of the brain is inhibited, disturbed or destabilised by sleep, drugs, emotional trauma or illness etc.

I do not wish to deny or belittle the often traumatic impact to which certain memories can give rise. There is no doubt that these often recurrent episodes are sometimes deeply disturbing. But an important point needs to be emphasised here. Disturbing memories, nightmares and hallucinations etc. invariably trigger unconscious processes - emotional responses principally - that have clear perceptible consequences. The racing heart, elevated temperature and feelings of anxiety etc. associated with a stressful memory are all perceptually available in spite of the fact that the dog that bit us is no longer present and the physical wound has long since healed. So, whilst memories, dreams, hallucinations and imagination are not perceptual phenomena, they often coexist with perception or spill over into it such that they become an inextricable part of it. The evening ruined by an unshakeable mood brought about by the persistent memory of an unfortunate incident at work is a common experience – one that many of us could much rather do without. But it is no less an experience, in spite of the fact that it was significantly influenced by something that has no perceptible characteristics whatsoever: a memory.

Imagination can influence and even precipitate experiences but it does not constitute them. The adaptive role of the imagination makes a lot of sense when thought of in this way, since, if it were completely satisfying in its own right – if it were an experience of potentially boundless proportions - it would provide little advantage in evolutionary terms. Indeed, it seems very likely that we would find ourselves hopelessly addicted to the incomparable pleasures of a limitless imagination, losing our grip upon the reality that sustains us and most likely wasting away in exquisite gratification.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Imagining Itself (Part X: The Bounds of Imagination)

 “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” -Jean Jacques Rousseau
We often hear of the boundlessness of the imagination, of the limitless ability of our minds to envisage the extraordinary, the bizarre and the unrealisable but it doesn’t take a great deal of thoughtful reflection to come to the conclusion that there are realms of understanding and awareness that are wholly impervious to the supposed boundlessness of the imagination. For instance, if the imagination were truly boundless, envisaging just one extra new colour besides those formed by the intermingling of the three primaries should be a matter of relative ease. If the imagination were boundless there should be no end to the varied hues and intensities we could imagine. Of course I can imagine that such things could exist – but, like a colour blind philosopher attempting to contemplate the difference between red and green, I’m simply unable to bring any conscious awareness to mind. Perhaps with the assistance of regular practice, drugs or neural stimulation I might enjoy a broader spectrum of hues and tones than those with which I am already familiar and very likely I would be able to recall these intensifications of experience, but as it is I am unable either to perceive or to imagine such wonders.

This relationship between perception and imagination has also be observed in patients suffering from lesions on the occipitotemporal region of the brain. This region is responsible for colour perception and memory and it has been found that patients with such lesions are unable either to perceive or to imagine colour.

Whilst there is much evidence for enhanced perception, intensity and acuity amongst individuals - not to mention species - there is much less evidence for entirely undiscovered colours. If humans could perceive ultra violet, x-rays or gamma rays, for example, would these be entirely new colours or simply variations or redistributions of the spectrum with which we are already familiar? If we could see infra-red, like pitvipers or pythons – with the help of specially adapted facial pits - would the sensation be one of colour or more like smell or taste? And might such an enhancement allow us to perceive a whole new rainbow in the electromagnetic emanations of microwaves and radio waves? Whilst we can certainly dream of such things in the abstract, the specific sensations – or more accurately - the associated mental responses are simply impossible to call forth. These responses and the dispositional states that produce them haven’t yet formed and this lack of experience would seem to impose a finite limit on our imaginings. It might even be said that the development of technology comes as a direct consequence of an implicit realisation of this fact: of the understanding that without tools to extend our perceptions of the world, our imaginations alone are far too limited to peer into the darkness of the unknown.

Rousseau may have believed that imagination was boundless but it would seem that his optimism was unfounded. Rousseau’s contemporary and brief friend, the philosopher of the Scottish enlightenment; David Hume, expressed an entirely opposing view. For Hume the imagination is bounded by the objects and events of lived experience and our powers of imagination are firmly tethered to the bedrock of perceived experience.
“But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted.”
Fifty years later, scholar Richard Payne Knight expressed a very similar view:
 “We may compose, paint, and describe monsters and chimeras of a very extravagant variety of form : but still, if we analyse - them, we shall always find that the component parts, how much soever they may be distorted or disguised, have been taken from objects or qualities of objects, with which we have previously been acquainted through the organs of sensation.” -An analytical inquiry into the principles of taste. (1805)
While it may be strictly true that the imagination is bounded, it is also the case that these bounds have two aspects: one of near infinite recombination and the other of dependency upon the recall of experience. In other words, the more limited the repertoire of recalled experience, the more limited the imaginative potential.

Imagination cannot generate something from nothing but instead requires sensory inputs and memories upon which to draw. In the next post we will explore why this might be the case and why it is unlikely that evolution could ever furnish us with greater powers of imagination than the extraordinary but necessarily limited ones we possess.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Imagining Itself (Part IX: Representation and Imagination)

For a more coherent and persuasive account of the evolution of human imagination than is provided by either Steven Mithen or Susan Blackmore we might instead look to the work of Australian artist and art theorist Donald Brook. Over the past 50 years Brook has developed a formidable theory of representation that has broad implications for an understanding of both perception and imagination and takes as its foundation the incontrovertible fact that human perception is limited.

Whenever we observe something, no matter however carefully we do so, we are inevitably locked into the specific characteristics of our perceptual makeup. These have evolved to gather sufficient information about our environment for optimal survival at the scales and speeds at which we operate. And, although the quality and quantity of this sensory information generates a richly detailed perception, this is by no means total or unbiased.

The natural world is full of creatures with very highly developed senses that also provide a rich awareness of the environments in which they live. Some are especially sensitive to vibration, others to smell, some to heat and yet others to taste etc. Each tends to specialize and to prioritise the information gathered through a single sense. We humans are adapted to prioritise sight above all other senses and it is not surprising therefore that we tend to consider this sense to be relatively infallible. Brook’s premise is that human beings are subject to systematic perceptual failures that make it very difficult, often impossible under certain circumstances, to discriminate between thing A and thing B in certain respects. It may be difficult to discriminate between two closely coloured things, a coloured swatch of paper and a painted wall, for example. We might even use the paper as a reference in order to buy a matching pot of paint and in this way to substitute thing A for thing B in respect of colour.

Substitution, Brook believes, is the foundation upon which all representations and representational practices rest and he describes three fundamental forms of substitution: Matching, Simulation & Symbolising.

Matching is the form of substitution which exploits the fact that two things are truly alike. The game of “Snap” where two cards are sensorily indistinguishable in a variety of ways: weight, size, shape, thickness, colour, pattern, etc. could be thought a paradigm of matching.

Matching also occurs in cases where one or more attributes are shared by two different objects. For example, the way a pencil matches the length of a finger or the colour of the pencil matches an orange or the spherical shape of an orange matches the spherical shape of the moon. In each of these cases we speak of the representation and its subject as ‘matching’ because we judge that they are alike in the criteria by which we are matching them. Perhaps a more accurate sensing device might detect some significant discrepancies, but though approximate, the fundamental equivalence between the two matched objects, clearly exists (at least at the perceptual level at which our species has evolved to function).

Unlike matches, Simulations are often radically different from the things they simulate. When holding a pencil at arm’s length it may seem to duplicate the height of a more distant object – a telegraph pole for example, yet we know that it does not actually match the height of the telegraph pole. The reason this strategy works is due to a regular (and exploitable) characteristic of optics in which distant objects are presented to the mechanisms of the eye as disproportionately small, relative to closer objects. Cameras exploit precisely the same characteristics in order to produce the images that we recognize as photographs. Brook describes this simulation process as:
“…a systematically regular discrimination failure, attributable to, and fully explicable by, the circumstances under which we are attempting to perform the sensory discrimination.” [Brook: in private correspondence]
In other words, in some situations it is difficult to discriminate (visually) between a simulation and the thing simulated, even though we are fully aware that the simulation and the thing simulated are not, as a matter fact, actually alike in the simulating respect.
Brook contends that this inability to discriminate between two objectively different things is due to systematic perceptual failures that are common to our species (and have also been observed in a number of other species, most notably our primate cousins).

By establishing this clear distinction between Matching and Simulation Brook provides a vital means to understand how representations function which cuts through decades of muddled thinking about perception and pictorial representation. No longer do we have to choose between what Nelson Goodman called “naïve resemblance theories” or theories that conjure up insubstantial so-called “mental images”.  Instead we have a solid basis upon which to examine representations as forms of substitution that employ varying degrees and kinds of both matching and simulation. However, before we turn to the evolutionary implications of all this theorisation there is one further component that we need borrow from Brook’s representational toolbox: Symbolising.

Symbolising is the means by which we represent things without recourse to either matching or simulation. For example I could use the same orange coloured pencil to represent a tree, a bowl of blancmange or even the moon for that matter and I wouldn’t even need a piece of paper to draw upon - simply designating the pencil as a representation of the moon would be sufficient. And, so long as we were willing (and this mutual consent is crucial to symbolic representation) to accept the pencil as a code for the moon I could use it at any future time – so long as we remember!

Brook speculates that the development of communication, imagination and even human consciousness must be the result of a progressive evolution of representing practices from rudimentary matching, through simulation and eventually to that most sophisticated form of symbolic representation known as language. He distinguishes between symbolic non-verbal representation and language by pointing out that the former still relies (as do matching and simulating) on sensory perception, whereas fully linguistic functions such as naming and describing and referring do not.

In Brook’s view, to utilize one’s imagination is to summon dispositions to represent, whether or not we actually enact these dispositions. It is the process by which we muster the impulses and responses we would have if we were to actually experience the thing or event imagined and, since we are inordinate users of perceptible representations, these impulses and responses are invariably directed towards the formation of representations to both register the situation in which we find ourselves, and more broadly to communicate with those around us; to guide the thoughts of others towards the same objects and possibilities as we ourselves are contemplating. It is an extraordinary feat that, as a species, we are able to do this; to use representations (no matter how unlike the things represented) to prompt other members of our species to respond comparably as they would to an actual experience.

This ability to detach the cognitive response from the perceptual encounter – the feeling from the seeing – must be at the very evolutionary core of human imagination, since, without the ability to entertain thoughts of something in its absence, imagination would be literally unthinkable.

To imagine, it might be said, is to turn our thoughts to experiences that are beyond the current focus of our senses. And how otherwise could our ancestors have learned to do so without the emergent use of perceptible representations to mediate their thoughts and intentions?