Exploring the brain's role in experiencing
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010
Exploring the nervous system's role in experiencing
As is true of empirical inquiry in general, the neural and behavioral sciences are rooted in shareable observations for which explanations can be conceived and tested by further observations. Unlike many other forms of empirical inquiry, the phenomena of making observations is itself a target of empirical inquiry in the neural and behavioral sciences. In this session, we will discuss some recent research findings in this area and the possibility that research of this kind will necessitate a change in understandings of the nature and practice of not only research in the neural and behavioral science but of empirical inquiry in general.
"The gaps between what sensory inputs we experience and what we actually perceive; where does extraneous information get processed away? How does the brain decide what is important?" ... Alison
"Belief is a kind of blindness" ... The neuroscience of screwing up
What can/should we do about it? As scientists? Retrain the dorsolateral prefrontal cortext? In ourselves? In others? How?
- The neural mechanisms of perceptual filling-in, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7: 220-231, 2006.
- Perception: from five senses through synesthesia and beyond, Serendip, 2009.
- Variations in perception and their significance, Serendip, 2009.
A discussion summary (Sasha):
Our first seminar focused on exploring the brain’s role in “experiencing”. We discussed why we observe the world the way we do and if it is possible for human observation to be reliable in an empirical context. There are gaps between what we observe and what we perceive. The way one individual interprets their observations and findings is dependent on what is already constructed- the brain is not only a filter for what we see but also a constructor.
One way in which the brain acts as a constructor is shown through the example of the blind spot. The brain fills in and provides a complete picture of what we see, even if we can’t actually see it because of our blind spot. Research on the brain was done to try and determine if, while filling in the image in our blind spot, the brain is actively “making something up” and firing different reaction patterns, or if the brain is not making anything up and there is, instead, no activity when filling in the image in a blind spot. Researchers found that the brain is actively constructing parts of what we are seeing.
We also discussed the idea that most of what we see all the time is a product of the brain’s construction. When you look at scenery, not only is the blind spot being constructed, but virtually everything around you is being constructed. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps. One of these other constructions is numbers and mathematics. Numbers are a human made construction, so just like the colors that we see, numbers are also (apparently) not a perfectly objective measurement and so math is not an objective tool.
Our discussion also focused on the definition of subjectivity and objectivity and the ability to “accurately” describe something. Objectivity is perhaps defined as what a particular population; under particular circumstances, agree on to be standard. Objectivity is not distinct from subjectivity but instead it is commonly shared subjectivity. Therefore, most of what we see is subjective. This leads us to the conclusion that there is perhaps no real way to determine “the truth” or “what is out there” since everything is constructed by our brain and subjective to our interpretation. This leads us to finally ask- what is scientific fact and what is the business of science? Is there any value to determining true objectivity or are we OK with living in a subjectively built world?
See forum below for additional and continuing thoughts