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June 28, 2003

Qualia, Neuroscience and Art


Thanks for putting me on to another paper written by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, “The Three Laws of Qualia: What Neurology Tells Us about the Biological Functions of Consciousness, Qualia and the Self” (which you can read here.)

Our readers may recall Dr. Ramachandran, as he is rapidly turning out to be 2blowhards’ go-to guy for neurology and cognitive science. (He put in appearances in two of our recent posts, here and here.)

First, a small disclaimer: Dr. Ramachandran is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. I, on the other hand, am (in my more lucid moments) a middle-aged businessman. Obviously, I’m in no position to either vouch for or challenge the neurological facts the good doctor and Mr. Hirstein present in their paper. So, making the assumption that he knows what he’s talking about, I thought I’d summarize those portions of his paper I think I understand, and make a few mild speculations about them.

You may not recognize the term, qualia, but you’ve known about a long-standing philosophical argument that involves qualia since you were in grade school. To wit, one of your playground companions undoubtedly turned to you one day and said, “Did it ever occur to you that even though we all call the color of the sky blue, what I see as blue could be what you see as red, or green?”

In short, qualia are the subjective aspects of sense perception, the parts that concern what perceptions “feel like” inside the brain of the perceiver. When I look up at the sky, I see light of a particular wavelength, but subjectively to me this light feels blue. Likewise, when I look at the grass, I see light of another particular wavelength, but in my head I see green. A robot with black and white vision might intellectually understand that I have a different neurological response to light depending on its wavelength, but it wouldn’t “get” what my subjective response “feels like” to me. Equally, (to put myself in the place of the poor robot) I might intellectually understand that some fish can directly sense electric currents, and even study just how sensitive this reaction is, but I won’t “get” what sensing an electric current “feels like” to the fish.

Philosophers got about this far in thinking about qualia and more or less concluded that the damn things were inescapably subjective and impossible to communicate from one brain to another. (We’ll never know if our companion on the playground really sees my blue as his green, or my green as his red, etc.) Philosophers have also have been more or less stumped by what purpose, if any, qualia serve in the mind. This topic is, of course, closely related to what purpose, if any, consciousness itself serves in our mental economy. Well, Dr. Ramachandran is made of sterner stuff; he refuses to back off where philosophers can’t figure out how to tread.

He and his co-author advance a theory that qualia are a sort of language, a language used by certain processes in my brain. They suggest that the “subjective” nature of qualia noted by philosophers and kids on playgrounds may be a translation problem more than an inherent one. That is, communicating qualia in words is like translating poetry—you can get the sense of a poem, but not the feel of it, in a different language. And, in fact, Dr. Ramachandran and Mr. Hirstein speculate that I might be to share my qualia with another brain if there were a “bridge” or “cable” of neurons connecting my brain to the other brain, because then the translation problem wouldn’t arise.

Of course, this is merely theoretical speculation, as Dr. Ramachandran and Mr. Hirstein admit, but it helps to provide a conceptual basis for the rest of their discussion. They then move on to examine some interesting neurological issues, many involving odd aspects of visual perception, and from them derive what they term the three laws of qualia. These are (in my formulations):

1. Qualia are irrevocable; they are not under our conscious control (we can’t will ourselves to see blue where we see yellow, or taste sweetness as bitterness.)

2. Qualia show up in situations where we are making conscious choices (“Hmm, do I want this tomato or that one—which one looks redder, more tasty?”)

3. Qualia persist over time, in at least a shadowy way (if we close our eyes after looking at a tomato, the sense of its redness can still be felt for a time.)

From these three observable facts and their qualia-as-a-brain-language theory, Dr. Ramachandran and Mr. Hirstein derive the following account of the purpose of qualia. According to them, basic sense perceptions and lower-level neurological processing are translated into a higher level “briefing language” (i.e., qualia) addressed to the conscious mind. The qualia are used as inputs by the conscious mind in making decisions. (In a non-literal sense, qualia are like memos sent up from the lower orders to the corporate boardroom that will be used by the board of directors to make policy decisions.) Qualia are irrevocable because their point is to “neaten up” the lower-level sense data which is always, to a degree, ambiguous (“Is the box really yellow, or could it be white and we’re just seeing it under a yellow light? Or maybe the box is surrounded by a bright purple background, and the yellow receptors in our retinas are firing in response to the purple ones being overloaded. Or…”) So that our conscious mind can get on with making a decision, we stamp a conclusion on the data by making it a qualia ("the box is yellow") and stop worrying about it. The qualia have to persist in a form of short-term memory because the decision-making apparatus of our conscious mind takes a few seconds to work.

Interestingly, Dr. Ramachandran and Mr. Hirstein point out that stimuli that provoke a purely reflexive reaction are not accompanied by qualia, because there’s no need to weigh, judge or consider our response. For example: when the skin on our finger is punctured by a sharp object, like a cactus needle, we will reflexively withdraw our finger well before any sense of pain comes into our consciousness. The pain, being a qualia, is connected with the need to decide what to do about the situation, a complex problem suited for our conscious mind.

I find this theory interesting because it seems to me that art is, among other things, a sort of exteriorization of qualia. Rather than just having a ghostly memory of the redness of a tomato, we can paint a still life of tomatoes. Rather than just having a ghostly memory of our body’s reactions to emotion, we can write a symphony to help us recall exactly what those responses felt like. Rather than trying to remember exactly what a particular food tasted like, we can cook elaborate meals to walk ourselves through a whole series of taste sensations.

Of course, art isn't of much use in terms of making decisions in the real world. So why would we bother with such exteriorizations? I can only assume that along the way to developing our current level of consciousness, we learned how to appreciate our qualia as aesthetic phenomena.

What do I mean, exactly, by aesthetic in this context? Let me try to explain. To make real world decisions, our conscious decision-making apparatus had to associate all sorts of memory data, some pleasant, some not, with a given constellation of qualia. “Hmm, green trees on a hot, sunny plain, dark shadows underneath (= cool shade), let’s go over there and rest.” But once the decision had been made, and we were trudging over to the shade, our brain was still intrigued by the wealth of the associated memory data that our qualia were calling into consciousness, and how even very subtle changes of the qualia made for complex shifts in the associated memory data. I offer that as our consciousness expanded along with the general growth of our mental life, this game of watching our shifting qualia and associated memories became itself intriguing and forms the core of what we mean by the notion “aesthetic.” And the reason to keep art around is to provide an exterior referent that we can use to refresh our associational machinery when our "ghostly" memory of specific qualia fades away. Of course, art also allows us to play our associational machinery like a church organ, summoning up new and more wonderful harmonies of associations.

Dr. Ramachandran and Mr. Hirstein’s theory even seems to me to offer an explanation for why we may prefer our art abstracted, generalized or stylized as opposed to an ultra-accurate representation of a given set of qualia. I’m guessing it's for the same reason that our memories of qualia are ghostly, or faint—so that we don’t confuse them with the qualia coming into our brains in real time and thus confuse memory with reality. As the good doctor points out, such confusion would be terribly dangerous, and it would be essential to avoid it. Thus we might have a bias to seek out enough similarity to set off our trains of associated memories, but not so precise a similarity to actually put us in danger.

Of course, my understanding of all this is probably even more vague than a dimly remembered qualia, (er, sorry, "quale") but I have to say this stuff strikes me as very intriguing. I’m looking forward to reading more by Dr. Ramachandran.



posted by Friedrich at June 28, 2003


You say that "Qualia are irrevocable; they are not under our conscious control (we canít will ourselves to see blue where we see yellow, or taste sweetness as bitterness.) ..."

I have minimal color blindness -- red and green dis-vision, meaning I don't see quite the right shades of those two colors. I still see red tomatoes and green leaves, but some tints are off from what you see.

What's weird is that this preception does seem to sometimes be under semi-conscious control. For example, the other day I was on my deck, noticing some peeling paint on the house trim. The paint looked charcoal gray. I of course had painted it a bright forest green just two years ago -- and having that thought, suddenly the paint is green again.

That happens at least a few times a year: a neutral white or gray suddenly snaps into color when I consciously think of what it's color is supposed to be.

Perhaps this is a case of my "qualia" overriding my deficient eyebals?

Thanks for a great site -

Posted by: Paul on June 28, 2003 12:37 PM

If you read the paper, you'll see that I was, ahem, oversimplifying a bit; Doc Ramachandran actually speaks of the strength of qualia, which vary somewhat. Thanks for the input.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 28, 2003 12:53 PM

In my own hard-blowing, I've claimed that the "aesthetic" isn't so much a confusing byproduct of the development of consciousness as it is a necessary foundation.

Of course, my claim's advance remains unhobbled by professional training or experience....

Posted by: Ray on June 28, 2003 04:43 PM

Incidently, I did check out Ray's link, and he has a bunch of very interesting content on cognitive science and related matters. I would recommend, if you're interested in this sort of thing, that you check it out. Thanks for stopping by, Ray.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 29, 2003 12:45 AM

Thanks for the firstrate presentation and summary. Great stuff, eh? I just discovered the other day the pleasing fact that Ramachandran was a student of a guy I worship, Richard Gregory, a Brit neuro-something-or-other whose best-known book is "Eye and Brain." Have you ever read it? Short, easy, super-stimulating, more exciting art-wise than all but the very best artcrit ... I've been promising myself to do a posting on him sometime. But you know what that's like. Be sure to let me know how you react if you ever look at "Eye and Brain."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 29, 2003 01:27 AM

Kinda like trying to nail jello to a tree. The printing color-correction industry is a testamonial to this struggle; for example, Hostmann-Steinberg used to make at least 4 different shades of process magenta ink for color tweaks, and Pantone led the way with a 6-color process trying to display the imperceptable. Heroic efforts are made to bring "accuracy" and "fidelity" to the printed page, which is then viewed by the color-deficient under yellow 40-watt lightbulbs. Ya gotta love it.

Posted by: Ed on June 29, 2003 10:57 AM

"... seems to me to offer an explanation for why we may prefer our art abstracted, generalized or stylized..."
Fried, could you name a few of the abstract artists you have in mind? Your is an interesting notion. Can't quite fit it to the abstract art I own (nobodies) or tend to admire, exactly. Also not able to apply to... Kandinsky (who I find sneaky, cold and finally irksome) but might track with any number of artists or styles.

Thanks, Ed. Often I watch eagle-eyed young women working on giant G4s with 24-inch monitors to create images and pages... that will be seen by color-blind older men on tiny, crap laptops.

Posted by: j.c. on June 29, 2003 02:42 PM

By "abstracted" I don't necessarily mean abstract; I was thinking more along the lines of "generalized," like painterly realism. But I don't see any logical reason for the notion not to extend all the way through abstraction. I think it would be fair to describe Hans Hoffman, say, as playing on the qualia-associational machinery. Actually, if qualia are a "language" as the good Doc R. hints, that would suggest that the "quales" could be separated and re-assembled into non-naturalistic forms, in the same fashion you can pull apart a written language and re-assemble it to make, say, a dictionary, or pull apart musical notes and re-assemble them to make 12-tone music. What we term abstract visual art may just be such a non-natural ordering of qualia.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 29, 2003 10:37 PM

I guess I love what Ed has to say on the subject.
I also suppose part of the whole thing also locates itself to asking - "Why am I Conscious"?
If you were to look at the the "asking" of the question - I'm led to wonder if it does not strike you as being just that bit "silly".....
Look at it again - is what I'd suggest!!!

Posted by: TYrannosaurus Rex on June 30, 2003 11:35 AM

Normally we experience heat heat and cold as cold. But if you turn on a tap expecting hot water and get cold water, the first sensation is often "hot!". There is also the phenomenon known as synaesthesia, where, for example, sound is experienced in colours (one or two composers of note are known to have experienced this).

Many of us can also attest to the experience of individual words,independent of context, having a particular image and aura: ie, we react to them somewhat as visual phenomena. In fact that is probably why I started writing poetry.

I think this area of qualia may be murkier than stated; perhaps there is a certain amount of conditioning involved. David Deutsch's excellent book The Fabric of Reality" sets out to establish via quantum mechanical theory that there are an infinite number of universes at work in what we consider to be one: he begins with a wellknown experiment that demonstrates interference patterns do not behave as predicted by classical physics when coherent light (say laser light) is shone through a surface with multiple photon-wide slits. It is much too complex to summarise here, but he demonstrates fairly convincingly that human brains interact with the multiverse on a quantum mechanical level.

Posted by: Dave Farrell on July 1, 2003 05:02 AM

Does this have anything to do with the fact that (as I'm told) as often as 40% of the time placebos provide the relief asked of them?

Posted by: Michael S on July 2, 2003 01:12 AM


Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 07:20 PM

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