Enjoy your new representational dog

One of the more interesting aspects of this Antonio Damasio neuroscience book that I’ve been reading (“The Feeling of What Happens”) is his discussion on how the brain “represents” our surrounding reality. For instance, sound waves vibrate at a certain frequency, enter our ear, and are represented as a C# note. Photons reflect off a yellow banana, hit our retina and are guided into certain parts of our brain, where we “see” the yellowness and the banana shape. We bite into a chicken McNugget, and our tongue senses the various McNugget chemicals which are passed along to our brain which registers them as having a certain (delicious) taste.

The point point is that we’re not directly experiencing these objects, we are experiencing our brain’s representation of them. Our brain could just as easily decide that McNuggets should taste bitter, or that bananas should appear blue, or that a C# should sound like an A flat, or even a burp. (Of course, our brain doesn’t actually “decide” anything — these representations have been burned into our DNA after eons of evolution.)

(Worth considering is the the condition of synthesia, where information coming in through one sense gets passed to another. So people “taste purple,” or associate music with colors.)

Damasio also talks about the idea of representation of objects. For example, you have a pet dog. He barks a lot. You stroked his furry mane a lot. He licks your nose a lot. You smell his ripe scent and determine he needs to take a bath. You watch him running around your yard, his tail wagging, his brown fur blowing in the wind. In short, you experience him via several of your senses — your eyes, your ears, your nose, possibly your mouth if you get hungry. And you correlate all this information about your dog — these various sensory representations of your dog — into the concept of your dog as it is held in your brain. And you add to that past memories of your dog, anticipations of future activities with your dog, and your knowledge about dogs in general, particularly this breed. You never really experienced your dog, you experience the dog object in your head.

Of course, you, the erudite person reading this blog, may not actually have a dog. However, while reading the preceding paragraph, you probably did construct a rough image of the kind of dog I’m describing. With very little impetus, you constructed a basic object of a mythical dog.

Damasio, in his occasionally convoluted prose, describes the object generating process. (From “The Feeling of What Happens” page 321.)

Thus the images you and I see in our minds are not similes of the particular object, but rather images of the interactions between each of us and an object which engaged our organisms, constructed in neural pattern form according to the organism’s design. The object is real, the interactions are real, and the images are as real as anything can be. And yet, the structure and properties in the image we end up seeing are brain constructions prompted by an object. There is no picture of the object being transferred from the object to the retina and from the retina to the brain. There is, rather, a set of correspondences between physical characteristics of the object and modes of reaction of the organism according to which an internally generated image is constructed. And since you and I are similar enough biologically to construct a similar enough image of the same thing, we can accept without protest the conventional idea that we have formed the picture of some particular thing. But we did not.

This speaks to the fundamentally alienated nature of man. We do not have friends, lovers, pets — we have neurological representations of them. We exist as islands, floating aimlessly in one of those strange alternate realities featured in the Dr. Strange comics, forever yawing and tilting along whatever course is set for us by the cosmic winds.

1 Response to “Enjoy your new representational dog”

  1. John Saleeby

    Which only brings Porn to mind.

    I’m not as Deep Guy.