“Golamandi”, from a new painting series

As athletes tend to their bodies, artists tend to their perceptions. But as our knowledge of peak athletic performance continues to improve, the domain of consciousness and perception is still full of mystery.

Consider this from Nicholas Humphrey in the New York Times Book Review:

A few days before a review of my latest book appeared in these pages, I wrote to my editor, saying I had seen an advance copy and how much I liked the color illustration of the yellow moon. He replied that I must be mistaken, since the Book Review doesn’t use color. The next weekend he wrote to say he couldn’t think what had come over him – he reads the Book Review every week, and had somehow not noticed the color. Odd. And yet these lapses can happen to the best of us. Ask yourself what the Roman number four on the face of the church clock looks like. Most people will answer it looks like IV, but almost certainly the truth is it looks like IIII.

Why are we so bad at knowing – in this case remembering – what passes through our own minds? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in “Perplexities of Consciousness,” contends that our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory. Despite what we believe about our powers of introspection, the reality is that we know awfully little about what our conscious experience amounts to. Even when reporting current experience, we make divergent, confused and even contradictory claims about what it’s like to be on the inside.

Humphrey draws upon the historical distinctions made between sensation and perception. Sensation is how we represent sensory stimuli at the surface of our bodies, and perception is how we represent the outside world in consciousness. Sensation is “raw and immediate”, perception more “categorical and slow.”

While sensation and perception have been confounded over the history of philosophical thought, Humphrey offers an extraordinary example of how we don’t neceesarily need sensation to perceive:

There is a clinical syndrome known as “blindsight,” resulting from brain damage, where the subject – to his own astonishment – finds he can “see” the properties of things he’s looking at, even though all visual sensation has been lost. He may indeed be able to guess what color an object is, without, as it were, seeing the color in color.

This concept is provocative. While this has been tested in brains that have been damaged, it does suggest that it might also be a quality of certain non-damaged brains as well. Humphrey commented earlier on how research has determined that some humans have “three times as much brain cortex assigned to receiving information from the eyes as others do.” Larger visual storage facilities? I like that idea. The concept of being able to “see” without the use of the eyes? Also appealing.

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