Philosophy

Mind Notes: The Blind Spot

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Photo of eyeWhen you have a lot of trouble reading books, that is, seeing the big picture, absorbing details, able to build up the narrative in your memory, learn and retain the learning, etc., etc., studying philosophy of mind gets a little discouraging. Unbelievably exhausting too. Enter videos. When you can’t read, watch!

Video courses may have been set up for normal, busy people who want to learn in their spare time, but they’re a boon for people with disabilities who would like to go to class but cannot due to various limitations. Financial is a big one, too, because the unemployment rate and medical expenses for people with disabilities, especially brain injury, are rather high. Not much left to pay for courses or ways to compensate for one’s limitations.

One of the perks of winning NaNoWriMo was a discount on Great Courses Plus. When I found out they had a series on Philosophy of Mind, I signed up! I began watching the series right away. Brain injury makes everything slow going. I just finished watching lecture 7 of 24 of Mind-Body Philosophy. It’s the second time I’ve watched it. I couldn’t recall this morning the last lecture I’d viewed before Christmas, this one didn’t seem familiar, loaded it, went, oh yeah, I have seen this, but kept watching because I hadn’t understood what the eye had to do with consciousness. This go round I got it . . . I think.

If consciousness is like a picture, then I guess the point of this lecture is that what the eye sees should be the same as what our conscious mind is aware of. It isn’t. Prof. Grim (no, no typo) showed two card tricks you can do with your vision. One is without seeing what it is first, you hold up a playing card way out to the side while looking straight ahead. Now see if you can tell what colour it is. You won’t be able to tell if it’s black or red until you move your arm closer to the front of your visual field. For whatever reason, with both eyes, I can tell much earlier than he could. The right side was more of a blank white with one playing card until I held the card at a particular angle. Perhaps I have more cones in the periphery than normal . . . ???

But it was the other card trick that made me realize something. On a white card draw an ‘x’ and a black dot, about 2 cm apart. Cover the right eye, hold the card up straight ahead with the ‘x’ on the right side of the card, and bring the card slowly toward you keeping your left eye focused on the ‘x.’ At one point the dot will disappear; as you keep bringing it closer the dot will reappear. If you draw lines around and over the dot, the dot will still disappear but the hatching will not.

The current view of philosophy of mind philosophers is that the brain is the mind. If that is so, then why does the dot disappear? It disappears because of the physiology of the eyeball. But the brain can “see” the hatching that is over the dot. In other words, the brain is very, very good at filling in our blind spot. I have personally experienced how good the brain is at approximating depth perception (which I realized only last year when I acquired true depth perception and what the difference is). But if consciousness is the brain, then when I am conscious that there is a dot on the card, my brain should still be able to see the dot. If brain is consciousness and consciousness knows the dot is there and the brain is really good at “filling in” missing info, then the dot should not disappear.

When I took Philosophy of Mind Oxford short course online, I became convinced of the dualist argument. The mind is not the body. The brain is not the mind. This dot test, is one confirmation of that.

Brain Health

The Unconscious Mind in an Injured Brain

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TVO devoted a week of primetime programming to Mysteries of the Mind. And The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin, featured a different brain-focused topic each evening as introduced by Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Toronto and author of The Brain That Changes Itself. One of TVO’s multi-part documentaries was on the unconscious mind, and The Agenda featured a panel discussion on that topic on Tuesday, 21 January 2014. The premise of the documentary was that we are entirely controlled by the unconscious mind. The panellists on The Agenda took a more nuanced view, but someone said somewhere that with each advance in scanning technology and research into the unconscious and conscious minds, we are seeing that more and more of our brains are about activity in the unconscious mind.

Some of the points they made puzzled me because as a person with a brain injury they didn’t quite fit. One point in particular bothered me: the experts stated that the unconscious mind makes decisions for us, that although we may feel that our consciousness does, the decisions are in fact made before we become aware of them, that the only way the conscious mind influences decisionmaking is if we challenge our decision consciously and in a different environment.

The experts also said that the cerebral cortex, the seat of conscious awareness, consumes as much energy as all our muscles whereas the unconscious mind consumes little energy. In addition, the conscious brain processes slower than the unconscious. Thus if we used our conscious mind solely and for everything we do, like brush our teeth, make decisions, play basketball, walk, find a mate, we would be slow and make mistakes. Sound familiar?

I have had my evoke potentials tested, and we have seen that my neurons fire quicker than average. Thus my unconscious mind should be working at normal or faster speed.

Take all that together, and I think . . . hmmm.

As a person with a brain injury, I cannot make decisions. With the help of various people and through trial and error, I have come up with strategies to make decisions. For example, these days, I buy only two apples at the grocery store. I don’t think about it; I just find two. If I had to decide on how many to buy each week, depending on what was in my fridge, what I felt like eating, and so on, I’d stand there for at least five minutes . . . maybe ten . . . maybe give up . . . before I chose my apples. Grocery shopping could take awhile. With major decisions like whether or not to buy an iPad, I use a decision tool or a couple of them. I have to think consciously about each step and each question in that tool, although filling in some of the answers may involve my unconscious mind.

My experience is not an isolated one. It seems that somehow brain injury makes the unconscious mind stop driving the conscious mind, and forces us to rely heavily or solely on the conscious mind. Until recently, I had to even think about walking. It didn’t feel like I was thinking with my conscious mind about how to move my legs until I no longer had to, because I’d become so used to it.

If the theories about the unconscious mind are true, then it seems that either the unconscious mind no longer talks to the conscious mind or the conscious mind no longer listens or the unconscious mind isn’t the driver of those of us with brain injury so much as it’s the seat of all learned behaviour and with brain injury we need to learn all over again. How much we have to re-learn depends on the extent of the injury and the kinds of and which memories remain intact. Perhaps too, although long-term memories may remain intact, our connections to them are damaged, and so they drive us in ways we are not aware of and force us to make an effort to understand. Sometimes they may drive us insane, as in PTSD. As one of the panellists stated, this part of the unconscious mind can be tapped through hypnosis and either given back to us or changed so that they are no longer “in charge.” Is that true for people with damaged brains too?

Watch The Agenda episode below on Unlocking the Unconscious and answer this: how do you think your unconscious mind works in you? Do you think you’re still connected to it? Do you think your conscious mind has to do all the work, if you have a brain injury? What are some ways we could tap into our unconscious mind? We’ll discuss these questions on #ABIchat on 27 January 2014 at 4:00 pm EST.

Writings

When is a Rose Red?

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I’ve been a bit lax in my blogging, so here’s this week’s knee-jerk philosophical question from my metaphysics course and my answer. Would you answer the same?

Question:
‘Is a red rose red in the dark?’ : Do you think that things retain their colours in the dark, but we can’t see them? Or do things only have colour when light is shining on them?

Answer:
From science, we know colour is a function of elements, biochemical compounds, chemical interactions, refraction of light, and so on. But the perception of colour depends upon light and the senses to perceive it. Also different wavelengths of light can distort our perception of the colour inherent in a thing. So I would say that things retain that which produces colour, but we can’t see them without light and without the correct makeup of rods and cones in our retinas and a healthy visual cortex.

Story

Zebras Don’t Wear Overcoats — Take Two

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I hated this upside down planet. The planet’s infrared light was beating down, no up, on my face as I walked along the ceiling-ground looking for my group, wondering how the blood wasn’t rushing into my head. I thirsted for water, for rain. A tree appeared in the distance. As I dragged myself closer, I saw it was a willow, with its dense branches improbably reaching up to the ground above me. I crawled under, no above, its branches and rested in the cool twilight. I awoke with a start. Zebras were staring down at me. They weren’t wearing overcoats. Here, Zebras don’t wear overcoats in the rain I remembered. I leapt up, scattering the Zebras, and ran through the branches into the cool rainy relief.

———

Bizarre little short story, eh? I wrote it because my first attempt at answering the question

Think of a (very short) story that makes sense of the claim that the belief [zebras don’t wear overcoats] could be a reason for believing ‘it is raining’ (it will probably be a bit outlandish, but it should be imaginable!)

failed big time. Try again, said the Oxford Short Course tutor. So I did, and this time I passed the review. Of course, I corrected my answer back in October. It’s just taken me this long to post the correction here.

 

Story

Zebras Don’t Wear Overcoats: A Little Rational Holism Story

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Zebras don’t wear overcoats. That’s what I thought when a Zebra clip-clopped towards me from the outer door wearing an olive drab waterproof hooded overcoat that draped down to his knees. I stopped mopping and stepped forward into a missed manure spot to get a closer look. The Zebra shook his head until his hood fell back. Drops flew everywhere. I swear he grinned a sigh of relief. He clip-clopped past me, down the windowless concrete walkway and disappeared into the inside Zebra enclosure. I shook my head and grabbed a shovel to clean up the new hills of manure. Well, the meteorologist had said it would be sunny all day. But once again he was wrong. It’s raining.