Why Do We See Anything?


By William A. Adams

I was always an introspective sort, and I wanted to know how the mind works, so I majored in psychology. Well, they don’t know how the mind works. At the time, I thought they did.

I thought my teachers and my textbooks were holding back. I understood that you have to learn the history and the basic principles before you can comprehend the core mysteries. So I learned and I waited. Nothing happened.

Every course I took, every book I read, I would think, yes, this is interesting and useful stuff, but it’s not the REAL stuff. Where is the real stuff?

I was particularly interested in visual perception. I’ve always had unusually sharp senses, especially vision and hearing. I wanted to know more about visual experience. So I studied that.

I learned as much about eyeballs as any ophthalmologist would, and all about the neurology behind them and the brain structures that support vision. I learned about afterimages, colors, pattern recognition, visual illusions, evolution of the eye, and perceptual learning in children.

But no textbook and no professor could ever explain to me why, when I open my eyes, I see things!

It takes a moment to appreciate the question. A pink, flowering oleander bush is just outside my window, rustling in the wind, the occasional hummingbird stopping by to investigate. I’m just sitting here in my chair. I point my eyes that way and voila, like magic, I see an exuberant flowering bush with frenetic hummingbirds. It’s a frigging miracle. How is it possible?

The “official” answer?  Sunlight reflected from the scene strikes my retinas, which trigger a pattern of nerve impulses that travel to the occipital cortex in the back of my brain.

And then… and then?  Then nothing! That’s the end of the official story! That’s what I was taught. Unbelievable, I know, but true.

When I asked further about this explanation, I was told that my brain has neurons that represent the scene I’m looking at.  Somehow, the answer was, if my brain had been stimulated, that should be good enough. Incredibly, that was the best answer I ever got.

I’d like to point out a few problems with the official explanation, just for the record.

  1. There is no little man in the head. If there were, he could look at my visual cortex, see the neural activity there and say, “Aha! Oleander bush!” But it is very dark inside the skull. Nobody could see anything in there. And even if there was an imaginary little man in the head (called the homunculus), he too, would need eyeballs and retinas to see with, and a brain and an occipital cortex. And then some smaller little man in HIS head would be needed to perceive his perception of my perception. And that second, smaller, homunculus would also need a homunculus, and so it goes on forever. Utter nonsense.
  2. The world is not upside-down. Any representation of the scene in my brain would be upside down and backwards. The lens of the eye inverts the image on the retinas. A camera lens works the same way. What my brain records is upside-down. I should perceive the world upside down then. But I don’t.
  3. The world is not pixelated. The nerve signals that flow from my retinas to my brain are on-off pulses, just like the 1’s and 0’s in a computer. Neurons are on/off structures. They fire or they don’t fire. They don’t have any subtlety, nuance, or in-between states. But no matter how closely I look, even with a microscope, there are no pixels. The visual world is continuous to me. (And note, the brain does not work like a TV. There are no raster beams, LEDs, or plasma cells. Just ordinary on/off neurons). There’s a mystery for you.
  4. No color makes it to the brain. The retinas respond to three different wavelengths of light, but in the brain there is no color. Yet I see the world in full color. Why do I see a colored world if the perception occurs in my my head where there is no color? Is color encoded? But what I experience is NOT a set of codes for color. What I experience is actual magenta, turquoise, and emerald!
  5. There are no pictures in the brain. If you dissect a brain, you do not find any pictures, numbers, words or songs. A human brain is three pounds of protein, fat, and water. It is all gray and white. There’s nothing in there that remotely looks like experience. If everything we experience is encoded somehow in the brain, then who or what agency kindly decodes it for us so we experience the world as we do, which is NOT as a set of codes? Is it that homunculus fellow?
  6. I am not a brain. The most preposterous answer I ever received to this set of questions (and I have many more questions – this is just a sample), was that my brain activity IS my experience. But I never understood that answer. I am a person. My brain is an organ of my body, no different in principle from my liver or heart. I am not a heart and I am not a liver either. I am a person. What sense does it make to say that the condition of my brain’s activity is identical to my experience? I HAVE a brain, but I also have fingernails. That doesn’t make me a fingernail. The only thing I have in common with the activity of my brain is co-location in space and time.

I spent forty-five years searching for answers to these and other questions. I had to move heaven and earth but I finally did get them. You won’t find the answers in any textbook though, because I haven’t written it yet. I have an outline.  Scientific Introspection is a modest first step toward that full explanation. It describes the method of inquiry I used to get my answers.  It’s a first step on a long journey. I’ll write more about that journey in the future.

Bill Adams
bill.adams111(at)gmail.com     http:billadamsphd.net

William Adams (2012). Scientific Introspection: A Method for Investigating the Mind, Revised Edition. Paperless Press, 2012. Kindle book on Amazon.com: bit.ly/scientific-introspection, $0.99, 216 pp.

Other books:

The Three-In-One Mind: A Mental Architecture.  Kindle book on Amazon.com: bit.ly/3-in-1-mind

The Purpose of the Body.  Kindle book on Amazon.com: bit.ly/Purpose-Body

What Does It All Mean? – Kindle edition by William A. Adams. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic. Professional & Technical Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com. bit.ly/what-it-means

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