AS138 Reality/Perception
Georges Seurat View of LeCrotoy 1889. Private Collection

Physical Reality and Human Perception

This module sets the philosophical tone of the rest of the course. Whilst we are deep in erudite discussion of the workings of nature and the physical origin of things like rainbows, we should keep in mind that everything is illusory, not real, a construction of whatever in our brains creates consciousness. Vision, like physics, is only a model of reality and is subject to unconscious social and biological forces.

The senses
All our senses translate different stimuli from the external world into similar electro-chemical pulses running from nerve cell to nerve cell into the brain. Hearing converts air oscillations into nerve pulses by waving tiny hairs in the cochlia of the ear. Taste converts chemical reactions into nerve pulses on the taste buds of the tongue. Smell converts molecular shape into nerve pulses in olfactory bulbs in the nose. Touch converts pressure and heat/cold into nerve pulses by receptors in the skin. Vision converts light into nerve pulses on the retina.

The Illusion of mind
All senses are body receptors; the mind creates the illusion of an external world. We do not in any way directly experience or know the character of physical reality. Wetness is a concept invented by consciousness to remember the feeling of liquids. All the aspects of vision are similarly invensions of consciousness. We imagine the external world only from a strange stimulus on the retina. In effect, Seurat is telling us in the picture above that sailboats do not exist; there are only atoms and photons, neither of which have color or shape. The sailboats are constructions of consciousness devised by billions of years of evolution to represent memorable objects. What is the character of the color orange? Can you explain orange to anyone else without referring to orange objects? Much of this course discusses the biophysical processes which contribute to the construction of the visual experience. Later there is an InDepth module on optical illusions. Optical illusions are picture "tricks" designed to confuse your vision system. However, every vision is an illusion; some, like oceans and sailboats, are just more consistent than others so we think they are 'real'.

All neurons speak the same sylables

Imagine these electro-chemical pulses traveling from neuron to neuron to the right. The brain receives the right pulses first, and then later the left pulses. Each pulse is nearly identical. A stronger stimulus, (e.g. brighter light) makes the pulses come at a higher rate. The interpretation depends on where in the brain the pulses go. Visual pulses eventually get to various parts of the visual cortex.

The language of vision
Objects imagined by consciousness have four seemingly independent characteristics. Each is processed in a different part of the visual cortex.

It is easy to think of these characteristics, but it is hard to imagine separating them and analysing them in different parts of the brain without reference to the object itself. The brain does this separation before it has developed a concept of 'object'. Now, we might ask: do objects have these characteristics precisely because they are analysed in different regions of the brain, and consciousness constructs representations from these building blocks, or do they really have these characteristics and nature has found clever ways of teasing them out for analysis? Most scientists favor the latter, but that might just be because they are still in the 18th and 19th centuries of the enlightenment period.

Vision is a Map of Reality (with typographical errors)
One way to think of vision is to consider the relation between a map or a photograph and the "reality" it represents. Here is a photograph of the Great Lakes region in winter.

The photograph shows ice, snow, clear water, and various land surfaces. We know which is which in the picture. However, what you are looking at is just a series of glowing pixels on your monitor; it is NOT ice, snow, clear water, and various land surfaces. The white areas correspond to ice and snow, etc. On a map, lakes are nearly always represented with blue ink; they are not actually little wet lakes on the paper.

Vision also is only a map of the outside world. Our consciousness has developed a sequence of conventional "inks" that always (or nearly always) have a one-to-one correspondence with outside phenomena. These representations have hidden implied conventions built into them, like the blueness for lakes on a map. A postmodern philosopher might tell you that the conventions are as much a product of social history as they are "hard-wired" into the neural processing.

Be that as it may, maps and photographs leave things out. They do not taste, smell, feel, or sound like the 'reality' they represent. They do not include details of three-dimensional shape and texture. They don't change with time. What has our vision left out? How would we know? Physicists have all sorts of experiments for measuring properties that our senses are not aware of, but in the end, the results are always described in terms of sensual perception, like shape, mass, and force.

Pattern recognition.
The most important biological function of vision is pattern recognition. We recognize the ice and Great Lakes in the picture above because we have seen these patterns before. Pattern recognition obviously has survival value. Our eyes are designed to find apples, tigers, and mates, under all circumstances of point-of-view, lighting, shadows, partial concealment, and a hundred other variations. Our most important experiences come from other humans. Our ability to read even very subtle facial expressions and hand gestures is exquisite. Engineers spend whole careers designing pattern recognition hardware and software for machine vision. These pages contain several modules about how our eyes do it. Look around the room you are in right now. I am sure it contains many recognizable rectangular shapes, like doors, windows, framed art or photographs, the walls themselves. But, none of these features present a true rectangle to your point of view. You can check out the non-rectangleness by holding up a card face-on to to you in front of any of the shapes. Here is a photograph of a window.

Due to the camera viewpoint, the rectangles are distorted into a trapazoids with angles that do not equal 90°. On your retina, the image shapes are further deformed into curved lines. Yet, we have no trouble recogizing the architectural purity of the rectangles.

Scientists have recently found that we have very specific cells in the brain that respond to very specific objects in our view. This finding might not be surprising for very familiar objects like family members. But individual cells even respond only to yellow houses and nothing else.

The Visual Path
Here is a diagram of the information path from object, to perception, to conscious construction:

  1. Light scattered off objects carries direction and color information.
  2. The light enters the eye and is focused into images on both retinas.
  3. Arrays of photo-receptors on the retinas detect the light and immediately transform the signals into bits of color differences and contrasts.
  4. The location of contrasts in the image carries direction information.
  5. Color differences carry color and illumination information.
  6. Contrasts carry shape edge information.
  7. Each time-sequence image carries motion information.
  8. Comparison of images from both eyes carries distance information.
We can pretty much follow the information path all the way to this point. Somehow all the processed data from the various areas of the visual cortex is blended with memory in the hippocampus of the brain. Then the miracle happens.

All we know about consciousness is that it appears to be distributed over all the feedback loops of the brain.

Some speculations about the animal kingdom
All vertibrates and many species of other phyla have eyes similar to our own. It would not be a surprise to find that all such animals create similar world maps. Almost without saying, a self-constructed map with the observer at the center implies a sense of self. It is probable that consciousness is a characteristic of all forms of life to a greater or lesser degree. Even plants and bacteria interact actively with their environment. Such interaction suggests a decision-making process, even if it is only chemical. Maybe our decisions are only chemical.

InDepth: Synesthesia
As many as one in every 1,000 people have sensory experiences in which a visual, auditory or other stimulus also prompts an experience with another of the five senses. That is, some people "see" sounds, "taste" shapes, or "feel" colors, and these sensations are as real to them as any so-called normal sense perception.

Sample questions for reflection:

How do the senses communicate with the brain?
What form do the signals on nerve cells take?

Why is vision an illusion?

What properties does vision assign to objects?

How are maps like vision?

Consider Seurat's picture above.
How many 'layers' of representation are present?
What are you actually looking at?

What is the goal of vision?

What are the main steps along the visual path?

What is synesthesia?
Given the information about our senses described above, how might it come about?