Thursday, October 02, 2003

Sprocket Science

Long before the Jazz Singer, philosophers and scientists tried to figure out how the human mind gets the music to go along with the pictures. We experience the world as a talkie, but it is exceedingly hard to understand how the brain manages to synthesize the inputs of the various senses into a more or less coherent display, especially since the several modalities of information are not processed at the same speed. Like a fan at a track meet, the mind should routinely see the smoke from the starter’s pistol before it hears the shot; but for the most part we dwell in a seamless, in-synch I-Max presentation. The occasional moments when this illusion breaks down are uncanny—the one that spooks me most is when I find myself half way out of the chair before I hear the phone ring—but these nerve-jangling exceptions are rare. Why they are rare, how the neural apparatus maintains the waking dream that is conscious experience are the questions that fall under the rubric of the binding problem.

It’s mysterious enough that a single consciousness can simultaneously register two inputs of the same type—the “I” and the “t” of the first word of this sentence, for example. As the now forgotten Hermann Lotze pointed out back in the 19th Century, the parts of a mental image belong together in a much stronger sense than the merely geometrical; and being together in the same brain isn’t obviously the same thing as being together in the same mind. Getting drastically different kinds of inputs to register together is even harder to figure out. The original, Aristotelian notion of Common Sense, known in the tradition as Sensus Communis, addressed this problem or, more accurately, begged this question, by postulating a special faculty that was able to synthesize everything, presumably by virtue of a virtue. Our everyday concept of common sense, however, does relate to the binding problem because experience is eminently social. A whole series of linguistic and cultural filters masticate the inputs of the senses before we are aware of them; and, even before that, civilization has always already simplified the things we encounter to match our limited abilities to cope with novel stimuli by expedients ranging from labels on canned goods to the painting of lines on highways.

I have no useful ideas whatsoever about the binding problem as an issue—the issue—of neurophysiology, but the problem is an existential one for me because I’ve allowed rather more content into my mind than some others. Like everybody else, I mostly restrict my attention to the names of the categories into which things are divided, an exercise that is not too daunting even when the list comes from a very old Chinese encyclopedia. Where I get in trouble or at least lose my audience is in breaking open the packaged goods and mingling the contents instead of the labels in my thoughts. Then I feel myself becoming a cheerful monster like one of those renaissance portraits where the face of the subject is made out of a jumble of fruits and vegetables. Of course I don’t do justice to the various areas of experience I attempt to relate together in my practice of life—if your nose is a pickle, you can’t expect it to be a very good pickle—and to play all the notes of all the scales on one not-too-well-tuned clavier requires more fraud than virtuosity. It is necessarily a comic performance, but perhaps a laugh is the only way that an important but essentially negative truth can be perceived.

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