Unification of perception

You know, I just had a profound insight into psychology and the brain that I am sure will radically alter mankind’s understanding of such things for the rest of its history.

One challenge of understanding how we sense the world has to do with what I would call unity of perception. We know we have five (really more) senses. So we can touch a ball, while also feeling it, maybe even tasting it, but how to we unify those different bits of sensory data into one object: ball? And it gets even more complex because we know different parts of the brain process different aspects of even a single sense. With vision, for example, separate brain parts process colors, movement, faces etc. So a person can have a stroke that targets a certain area and lose their sense of color but retain everything else. The lesson here being that even a single sense can be broken down into subcomponents. How do all those components unify?

Hearing, of course, also has subcomponents: volume, pitch, tone etc. All the other senses do I suppose.

I’ve seen this unification of perception problem described many times but it never really seemed like that great an issue to me. To answer the question, “why do senses and their subcomponents unify?” I was happy with the answer, “they just do.” Maybe it’s just a result of how the brain processes information. It was hard for me to understand what the experience of the brain not doing this would be like.

However, I just got a quick look. I was working on some recorded music and was tweaking a particular passage. There was a little set of about five notes and one of them seemed off. I listened to the set and realized the one note was too quiet. But which one? In my mind, I played back what I had just heard and I “found” the quiet note, but I also knew I was making the wrong choice. I was applying this subcomponent of sound – volume – to the wrong note. And I suddenly understood how – when I listened to this music – my brain was assembling the total sound experience out of these sub components (in this case, incorrectly assembling.) I caught the magician making a mistake.

And the skies opened and puppies rained down on the earth.

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