Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Consciousness Burlesque

It's well enough known that when the body is suffused with certain kinds of hormones, the mind can make almost any shape erotic. It scans for cues, and finds them in the strangest places. Kind of in the way that once you start, every statement can become a sexual double entendre.

This is among the stuff now fading for me. Could be the hormones, could be the energy to infer shapes where randomness resides, or it could be what it's usually called: memory loss.

It's commonplace to hear people tell, with assurance, how songs are more easily remembered than straight prose. How rhyming is mnemonic. Well, I can memorize hardly anything, and I can assure you on the basis of plenty of experimentation, I can't remember a song to save my life.

Finally, after days and days of trying I did manage to memorize both the words and the chords to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Part of its charm is that each time I sing it, it's almost entirely new. Sometimes I go off the rails, and sometimes I have to start over, but I hardly think that either the rhyme scheme or the music is helping me to remember the words. I should work on that, but there are always so many more interesting things to do.

What I do remember easily are principles. Ways to put words together. My principles change, so that some days I'm a strong believer in the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, and others I'm equally certain that it's not possible. Some days I have nearly absolute confidence of the importance of my principles for ordering the stuff of reality, and some days I'm pretty sure that I'm deluded. I'm glad I can still laugh.

But I don't forget those things once they're formulated, and sometimes I find clues hidden among the random stuff I read, or watch, or in process of conversation. It helps in particular to try explaining something that I think I understand really well. I'd say I'm a passibly good explainer. I remember principles, but I forget which side I'm on, especially when I'm in the throes of explaining the opposing case.

It is really really strange that I ever took up the study of Chinese poetry. Traditionally, it's all about memorization, which as I've told you, I just can't do. But I seem to have an easy enough time remembering written forms. I think that's because they get used in sentences and these sentences make sense: each little one of them is like a mini principle, or rather the usage of a word in a sentence invokes a principle specific to that word, and I can remember it. Apparently pretty well. I can't remember the poem but I can remember what the words mean.

Now I've been puzzling over these pre-sentiment experiments which have subjects choosing which curtain the erotic image is behind, before the image has been put there, and they seem able to choose the right one at some frequency greater than chance. And I read the refutations, always investigating where the sleight of hand is.

I think no-one supposes that there is deliberate misleading going on, but the result is so utterly unthinkable, like a pretty woman sawn in half, that there must be something we're paying the wrong kind of attention to. Historically, it takes quite a while to find out what is "really" going on when surprising results are found through the methods of science. But surely something is distracting both the investigators and those who can find no flaws in the method.

I've suggested that the misdirection occurs in the same way it always does; when we think we know what we're seeing and so we direct our attention to someplace different from where the action is really happening.

Experimental evidence from elsewhere amply demonstrates that gross changes can be made to images as we memorize them and we will never notice, so long as these changes aren't made while that part of the image is at our focal point. These magic tricks are accomplished by computers armed with eyeball trackers, and I don't mean the kind which uses cookies on your computer.

They literally track your eyeball movements so that gross changes can be made while your memorization is in process and you won't even know that anything's happened. Write it down, print it out, if you want to be sure of the arrangement.

As investigator Bem points out, when you're all hepped on reproductive urges, there's a pretty big evolutionary payoff to finding sexual objects all over the place. You're motivated and there is an immediate cost in frustration to not finding your quarry; there's a bias in favor of making mistakes rather than to lose the prospect altogether. I guess sometimes almost anything will do, even a pure figment of the imagination.

And yet the research seems to show that so powerful is the motivation that patterns not discernable by ordinary man or machine are discernible by the horny subject. And this is surprising?!

Oh wait, I've performed a sleight of hand myself, haven't I? I've suggested that the subjects were looking for patterns and not for porn per se. And that the same pre-conscious assembly line which creates naked flesh from shadows and used subliminally in advertisements, also knew which way to look between curtain A and curtain B.

But I've also suggested that the hypothesis about effects from the future is misguided. This is rather an experiment to test what should be considered to come from inside the mind as opposed to what originates outside it. It's an exercise in boundary discovery, and not in pre-cognition.

Hepped up subjects will see more porn than not for sure, and so then the proper focal point for analysis might be how the images were tagged as erotic. For some stupid reason I can't identify, I watched the recent movie Burlesque, and I'm a little bit ashamed to say that I didn't find it very erotic at all. Well, not ashamed exactly, but more some function of age I'd like to color over.

Cher looks plastic as always, and Christina Aguilera comes on like a post modern Marilyn Monroe which is to say I know Marilyn and she ain't it. All the pieces are doing what they're supposed to do, the curves are all emphasized in just the right way, the jiggles are choreographed and the cameras are cut away at just the right moment to allow my brain to commit that special crime of filling out the detail (the crime is not in the doing, but in the manner of speaking about it, as Dennett urges) with idealized forms.

You know the principle of eroticism is not erotic at all, but I suppose it must provide good scaffolding for memory in a memory challenged guy like me. Except oddly enough I need the picture. And better than the picture I'll take the real thing. And better than even the most nubile real thing I'll take the one I love, but I guess that's just me. I must be doing something to myself the way that the eyeball tracking machine fixes the picture while I'm paying attention somewhere else.

The mind's interpretation of the mis-ordered stuff of reality obeys the narrative imperative. Before sense can be declared, there has to be some possibility to arrange things according to some plausible order of operation, where plausible means like what happens out there in the real world. And this narrative imperative utterly trumps reality as can be demonstrated by flashing images in the right sequence.

So, back to the experiment and away from this tawdry misdirection! These pictures were distinguished in classification by sufficient normed distance between the erotic and the non-erotic that you'd have to assume that virtually anybody could tell which is which. But by god by the laws of polymorphous perversity, there still has to be someone somewhere among the subjects who's going to be turned on by being turned on or something weird like that.

We have a sort of standoff. Which is more real, the assemblage of the mind which strives to make sense of reality, or the real which presents the mind with impossible to assemble events? Make it work without reward or punishment and the mind will fall asleep. Make it play, and interesting, and the mind will be addicted.

So maybe that accounts for why the correlations weren't stronger: more removed from chance. There is in principle no way to know what your mind is missing from the reality that's out there without the ability to define a boundary. Without a before and after; without an in and out.

But a boundary requires different stuff on one side than on the other. And in the case of the blind spot in each of our visual fields which demarks the spot where the optic nerve crosses the retina, there's nothing on the one side, and therefore, no boundary. The mind "fills in" with plaid if there's plaid around the lacuna: with orange if it's orange.

But no! The mind does no such thing! It ignores the stuff that's not bounded. It doesn't "fill-in" nothing with something. It doesn't have any way to tell that nothing's there, and so the cosmos is complete.

The same is true about what's inside the mind and out. Metaphors for memory seem useful, but they also exclude other ways to think about these matters. Databases often store only indexes to stuff which resides elsewhere. If you destroy the stuff, the index is voided also, but the mind has no way to know that until it looks, and it can't look unless it knows the trick.

So these psi experiments don't show anything at all about presentiments of the future. They only point out blind spots in the mind, whose boundaries don't exist. We presume some sort of continuity; we don't fill it in with what we want to see, but rather by our wanting we actually do see patterns which are not in fact there yet, from some other point of view. We've brought inside the mind phenomena which were heretofore believed to be outside it, or vice versa.

We've supposed a boundary where there never was one, because there is more to to world than can be known. There are lacunae. By our careful interrogations, their outlines can be determined. There is stuff beyond the reach of knowledge. To say that stuff is random is an imposition of a sense we simply haven't made yet. It might be, it might not be. We simply can't know yet.

And so there is no boundary to the mind in any ultimate sense. There will always be more to be brought inside. And dreams of Artificial Intelligence, strangely, are premised on what we know right now of consciousness, even as it changes to something else entirely by virtue of our thinking about it. When nakedness doesn't seem so - when there's nothing left to hide - I guess we'll be back in Eden. I guess free will will be no more.

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