Solipsisms, Tannhäuser Gate and neuronal encoding - Part I

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder off Orion. I watched C-beams glittering the darkness near the Tannhäuser gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. - Blade Runner(1)

The train is gliding along a long drawn-out turn through the valley. The soundproof headphones of my MP3 player mask most of the driving noises which, in conjuncture with the smooth motion, conveyes a feeling of detachment from the outside world. The autumnal sun's light floods through the broken ceiling of majestically drifting stratocumulus clouds, setting the green hills and fields of gold ablaze with almost incandecent colours. A change of key alters the mood of the piece of music I am listening to, abrubtly triggering fleeting memories of past summers. Such ephemeral impressions may only last a few moments but can rival the complexity of a small universe.

What I am trying to describe here is certainly not a revelation to anyone - practically every human being has experienced such moments. Writers and poets throughout all time periods wrote about this - much better than I ever could, by the way. This is not an exercise in developing the abilities to express myself. Rather, the fleeting-ness and subjectivity of such moments makes me reflect upon our lack of means by which we might share these impressions with others. My thesis here is that every attempt at communicating such impressions is based on evoking an analogy (since I can, rightly, expect the reader to be able to empathise with the introductory scene by virtue of the fact she has made comparable experiences). However, I doubt that we can - and ever will - convey every last of the subtle nuances of our own perception, that is, the exact feeling.

Subjective impressions are (by their very definition) neither objectifiable nor can they be reproduced by or for a different person. They are real, nontheless, since they represent a reaction of the individual's central nervous system to an external stimulus. The external stimulus is, without a doubt, real (the autumnal scenery around me, the music playing from my MP3 player), as are the neurochemical reactions that the former trigger. It's only that these reactions and the feelings associated with them are limited to the experience of the individual which makes them totally subjective.

The only system that seems to be capable of accessing such a moment from the memory and "replay" is the psyche of the person who experienced it.(2)

Reality: smallest intersection of all perceptions

The totality of subjective impressions of all beings capable of perception and introspection should not be deemed any less real that the outside world.(3) The real, objective world is merely the intersection of that which is percieved by all perceptive entities. According to this, the objective world is just the smallest of all realities. Maybe an illustration is in order here.

Let us examine an arbitrary scene from different points of view taken by a collection of individuals, say, the inviting branches of a majestic tree, spanning over the lawn of a city park. Subject A, a tourist - a foreigner in the city on a sight-seeing tour - might actually be prompted to let the obligaroty camera sink and contemplate the scenery before him for a minute, maybe reminesce about another place he visited once, evoking a different scenery and mood. Subject B is an inhabitant of the city who might visit the park every day, seeking quiet relaxation and refuge from the hubbub of urban life for a few minutes. Subject C might be an expert of natural history who is more than anything else preoccupied with determining the exact species of the tree. Such a person percieves the tree differently from a lay-person on whom subtle details may be completely lost. Subject D, finally, is a physicist, sitting on a bench under the treetop, completely absorbed in deep thought, triggered by the bench's cast iron ornamentations pondering chemical reactions and corrosion of metal and eventually driven to contemplate the vanitas, vainness of all striving.

Please forgive me the melodramatic fashion in which the last paragraph is wrought. Even if the mood is (intentionally) forced, it serves the purpose of illustration: four completely different perceptions of the same underlying reality of the objective outside world. This entire moment might not even lasted a minute but even this (by far not exhaustive) description of all possible points of view strongly suggests that such moments represent a microcosm in its own right, as does the opening scene in this essay.(4) Who might, in the face of these considerations, doubt that the perceptions of a single person that are connected to a certain external stimulus might not actually be richer and more interesting than the external world?(5)

Communicating mental states through the arts

Language appears to be an inadequate means to convey impressions and mental states. Those who succeed in doing so via the means that are accessible to us are called poets. One cannot explain to a blind person what colour is. Language is a system of symbols that represent something and therefore require the addressee to have already made similiar experiences in order to understand these symbols. When I say "blue" (an arbitrary combination of sounds that I make with my speech apparatus that in itself does not carry any meaning about the perception of this colour(6)), I evoke the association of that colour in the recipient's mind and I assume that the recipient has the same concept of that colour as I do. However, we do not have any proof that the recipient's concept of the colour blue is the same as our own and it is very much possible that the perception of colour (or any perception, for that matter) is unique from one individual to the next which would, consequently, make all of us the inhabitants of our own private univese, that is, true solipsists.(7)

The introductory scene is a rather crude sketch of what I percieved in that particular moment und its success in relating to the reader is much more rooted in the fact that the reader has made similiar experiences throughout her life rather than me being able to convey in my words every single detail of this moment. Thus, the attempt to explain someone else my own innermost states of mind is an excercise is finding analogies to which the recipient might relate. Yet, there is no way for me to describe the exact mood or feeling by words alone. In fact, I cannot even describe these feelings to myself using language.

Music certainly is a very powerful means by which to communicate moods and emotions (hence the huge importance the soundtrack plays in movies). A prominent example might be Edvard Grieg's Morning Mood from the Per Gynt Suite.(8)

I'd be very interested whether Grieg's Morning Mood is percieved as a morning mood by people from different times or with different cultural backgrounds.(9) Astonishingly, as soon as the flutes and oboes start to play, I involuntarily think about the sun rising above the tranquil surface of a lake in the mountains. Granted, it is very possible that this precise image was imprinted on me by various visual media (e.g. movies), meaning that this impression of mine might not actually have spontaneously formed upon hearing this piece of music for the first time. Nevertheless, this example illustrates that at least me thought this music to be a fitting description of a morning mood.

Communicating mental states through neuralonal engramms

So if language is an inadequate means to communicate inner states from one individual to another, we ought to look for alternate ways to do so. If we assume that a mental process has a physical basis in the form of neuroelectric or neurochemical system states of the central nervous system (which means that we foreclose that whatever it is that we label with the word "psyche" is not independent from the material world, i.e. we do not assume the existence of a "soul") we might be able to take advantage of this for our purpose.

The processes within a central processing unit (CPU) are electrical states that can (at least in principle but probably not with a practical method) be read in real time. If not, at the very least the knowledge of structure, design and functionality of a CPU enables us to retrace the processing of information within the chip since the CPU will always process a given input signal according to a specific deterministic rule - so at the very least the manufacturer of said CPU should be able to do so. The analogy between the brain (the physical "seat" of the "psyche") and a CPU is often employed. Even if this analogy does not do the workings of the brain justice, we might still use it to make a point: why not consider the brain as a highly developed central processing unit whose (neuro)electric states we may read (at least theoretically)? Tentatively, that is already happening when we read brain currents by means of an electro encephalograph (EEG), i.e. we record the electrical impulses generated by neurons and transmitted by synapses.(10) So we might imagine a more advanced version of this method which enables us to read the neuroelectric and neurochemical states of the entire brain in toto and in real time. Let's call these information "engrams" to designate the totality of neuroelectric states of excitation that are associated with a particular perception and/or a mental state.(11)

If we came this far in our Gedankenexperiment that we are able to scan and record even ephemeral perceptions and impressions as well as their associated evocative moods in person A as electrical impulses, we might also be able input these electrical systems into the central nervous system of person B. Might that acutally work?

Granted, this entire Gedankenexperiment is permeated by conceptions that I developed as a user of computers to understand the processing of information. The idea I presented in the last paragraph is analogous to making copies of a video file (which is a pattern of signals that are stored as magnetic structures on a hard disk drive which can in turn be converted to electrical signals that are processes by a CPU). Such a file (which is an abstraction for our neuralonal "engrams") can be copied from one computer and the next and played there for the user to enjoy.

The neural correlate of thought - the brain as a central processing unit

At least from the viewpoint of functionality, all (healthy) human brains are alike - each is composed of a neocortex, an amygdala, Brocca's and Werneck's regions etc. Likewise, every central processing unit is alike from a functional viewpoint (von-Neumann architecture), even if the question which transistor of an intel CPU corresponds to a certain transistor of an AMD CPU meaningless, even absurd is. It appears that on a level lower than functionality, we might not be able to ask what neuron in person A's brain corresponds to a particular neuron in Person B's.

Furthermore, on the level of neurons and synapses, the analogy between the human brain and a CPU might be inappropriate. It appears that the brain, unlike a computer, cannot be seperated into hardware and software, implying that a "thought" is merely a software in an otherwise static network of synapses (the hardware). Rather, the processing of information itself alters the structure of the brain which is precisely what enables us to learn and advance. The brain's plasticity causes a highly individual "configuration" of our brains that are highly distinct from one individual to the next. Therefore, our freshly recorded "engram" of person A still in hand, already be overwhelmed by the question of what neuron in person B's brain we are supposed to excite with the engram's signal in order to reproduce the mental state that was percieved and experienced by person A.

So, the attempt to input person A's engram into person B's central nervous system is, perhaps, comparable to the attempt to input a series of commands of an intel CPU into an AMD CPU. It might be possible to reproduce the exact sequence of signals in the latter. However, the AMD CPU certainly cannot process the instructions of the former. Likewise, the neural encoding of information is highly individualistic. A mental state cannot be transfered from one mind to the next without incurring losses or distortions - if at all, that is.

The last step in our Gedankenexperiment will therefore concern us with a kind of translator or converter that knows the exact workings of central nervous systems A and B and is able to convert an engram from the one to an engram that can be read by the other. This, however, poses new problems since translation always entails interpretation (recognizing the "gist", the meaning of a message instead of translating on a word-by-word basis) - and interpretation is only meaningful on the level of functionality but not below. Therefore, it might not be possible to communicate a mental state from one mind to the next any more than it is possible to translate from one language to another.(12)


(1) Blade Runner - TEARS IN RAIN

(2) It is noteworthy that, in trying to describe this process, I almost automatically used the vocabulary that describe the workings of electronic entertainment devices. I thereby assume that a person's memory works a lot like a sort of storage medium (like a hard disk drive or a DVD) and furthermore that the accessing of such memories is akin to retrieving and replaying a file by some sort of "memory engram player". Upon inspecting this more closely, one might object that I have no basis for such assumed inner workings of the brain (apart from the fact that it makes for a convenient way of describing things). Maybe not even the usage of the word "psyche" is entirely justified and justifiable, but I wanted to avoid using the term "soul" or "spirit". On the other hand, if I call it "neuronal subtrate", as the relevant research papers suggest, I might run the risk of limiting myself unneccessarily to the material basis of the Self. There is no way of avoiding the mind-body-problem - at least, none that I see. What am "I"? Is consciousness somewhere to be found in the neuroelectric impulses of the brain, i.e. only the software that runs on the hardware of the cerebral circuitry? There is an abyss of ignorance yawning right before me...

(3) Which is not to say that we should attribute the hallucinations experienced by a delusional mind any reality - at least not in the sense that these hallucinations bear any impact on anyone besides the delusional mind. Still, the hallucinations are real in the sense that they can - at least in principle - be mapped to the neurochemical activity of the person suffering from delusions. Of course, could we describe such mappings exactly, we might very well be able to erase these hallucinations and alter the state of the patient's psyche and/or their representation on the underlying level of neurochemical acitivity that trigger them, that is, we would be able to heal such a person.

(4) That might be an idea for a novel? Connect Joyce's goal of mapping one single moment in toto with the entwined threads of contemporary hyperlink literature. What's that? Too ambitious? Too pretentious? Too trivial? Nevermind.

(5) There might be individuals (or at the very least, we can think of such) whose inner cosmos has already reached a greater complexity than the external world and who, consequently, confine themselves to introspection (they exiled themselves to their own mind).

(6) Neither is it of any use to fall back to scientific measurements. The colour blue is associated with a wavelength of light between 700 and 800 nanometers, independent of any subjective frame of reference. Even the chemical structure of light receptors in the human eye appear to be nearly identical in all humans. However, it does not follow that the electrochemichal signals of these receptors are interpreted the exact same way across all human brains, evoking the exact same impression across people. I am talking about the subjective perception of light of that particular wavelength. Apart from the observation that there are colour schemes that appear to be thought of as pleasant by a majority of humans, we cannot prove that our individual perceptions of the same colour are, in fact, identical.

(7) Cum grano salis. The barrier between individuals pertaining to the exchange of mental states is very much real. However, the mere existence of something like "language" is a strong indication that there is a vast intersection in the experiences all individual humans have made and will make, hence making the invention of a system of symbols for transmitting concepts and ideas a very successfull undertaking. Subject of this essay are the precise limits of such an exchange.

(8) I find it fascinating that in both music and painting we find genres that exactly strive to convey the ephemeral, subjective impressions of a moment. Of course, I am talking about impressionism among whose representatives we count Claude Debussy (Claire de Lune from Suite Bergamasque) or Auguste Renoir (Le déjeuner des canotiers, Bal du moulin de la Galette).

(9) Probably not (compare Douglas Adams' remarks about the ubiquitous Richard Clyderman music in his travelog Last Chance to See). And if this is not so, could we analyze and isolate sociocultural factors that are responsible for the divergence in perception of a particular piece of music? Such an analysis might start out with the fundamental differences in tonal systems into which a given composer or performer was born. To a westerner, arabic (oriental) music sounds rather alien (and not always pleasant) as it is based on a system of 42 intervals rather than the 12 we are accustomed to in western music. So it might be possible that someone unfamiliar with the western system of well tempered tuning is not touched by Grieg's Morning Mood at all.

(10) Of course, current EEG technology is unable to generate enough resolution to scan individual neurons. The point I am trying to make here is that there are objective, scientific methods with which you can examine the mental states of an individual. The alternative would be to consider the inner cosmos of a person a black box that no one, baring the indivdual itself, has any access.

(11) In parlance of cybernetics, we might consider the brain a finite automaton and its neuroelectric excitation patterns its discrete states. Granted, it is highly uncertain whether this abstract concept can be applied to the brain, but this essay is merely speculating what we might gain from such a point of view.

(12) I am not saying that translating from one language to another is impossible. I am merely stating that translation (interpretation) is not always possible in "swap words from language A to words from language B"-manner, as anyone who has ever tried to translate, say, a Shakespeare play, can attest to. Sometimes an interpretation is using an analogous (but not exact translation) concept in the target language to convey the meaning of the text in the source language. I highly recommend Umberto Eco Mouse or Rat. Translation as Negotiation for further reading.

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