Are You Nobody? Perception and Self-Identity By Daniel E. Blackston
A number of new approaches to perceptual psychology have created conditions where a paradigm shift seems to be in the offing. Ideas such as Prinz’s notion of Attended Intermediate-level Representation (AIR) theory and Susanna Siegel’s notion of experienced mandates can be used not only in regard to perception of the environment and outer-world, but also to notions of self-identity. It may be that self-identity, in turn, helps to define the parameters of conscious perceptual experience.
In the following discussion, broad, general strokes will be used to paint a more or less blatant argument to connect self-identity and perception. These broad strokes are necessary from the point of view of clarity and brevity but are not meant to weaken the magnitude of the original assertion. In other words, when examples are given in the following argument about the way that perception and self-identity interact these examples will be broad and general, but that is not to say that the effects of that interaction should be understood as being confined to the broad and general.
On the contrary, as the following ideas will show, the influence of perception on self-identity and vice-versa is so deep, complex, and total that the impacts and effects may never be fully understood or quantified.
The first point to consider is Prinz’s notion of unconscious perception. In the essay “When is Perception Conscious?” Prinz suggests that attention plays a key role in determining whether or not perception is raised to the level of conscious awareness. Prinz’s AIR theory, as previously mentioned, functions as a hierarchy of conscious and unconscious perceptions. In Prinz’s model, perception can be understood as a “ladder” of awareness that ranges from unconscious perception to “intermediate level” to “sensory” and “attended” modes of perception. (Prinz). The key to moving through these modes is attention. The more attention that one pays to a specific stimulus, the more details and contexts rise out the experience. Attention plays the key role in determining the level of perceptual experience.
This connects to issues of self-identity in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. The obvious way is that a person’s sense of self-identity is liable to play a decisive role in determining how much attention they pay to a given stimuli. For example, a man who is being rushed to the hospital for a heart attack is unlikely to notice the crying toddler by the ambulance, while the child’s mother’s attention might be so focused on her crying child that she fails to even notice the ambulance. In this case, it is the mother’s sense of self-identity that brings the child’s cries into a sharper focus for her. At the same time, it is her response to the stimuli of the child’s cries that defines her self-identity. This simple example can be taken as a model for the basic argument presented in this essay. Perception is an expression of self-identity, but it also functions as verification for self-identity.
One possible objection to this assertion is that Prinz’s model has nothing to do with self-identity, but is purely based on environmental stimulants and neurological response. Such a view is supported by Susanna Siegel’s ideas in “Affordances and the Contents of Perception.” In this essay, Siegel offers a theory of experienced mandates. In this theory, environmental stimuli and conditions form the primary impetus for perceptual experience and individual behaviors. According to Siegel’s model, environmental conditions “invite” certain perceptual responses and behaviors. One example that is given in the essay is of a tennis player who, by holding a racquet, finds the “invitation” to strike an incoming ball too powerful to resist. The same dynamic can be said about a person who sits down to a fully cooked meal with a knife and fork. The behavior of eating is mandated by the experience of the environment. Similarly, a person who is drowning in water is obliged to respond to the environmental stimuli based on the physical condition of the experience. These ideas show that experienced mandates are fundamental to perception.
A fair enough objection, but it fails to stand up to scrutiny. If, for example, self-identity played no role in the formulation of perceptual experience, variation in the experience of a single stimulus among a group of people would be reliant only on physical variances in their neurological and sensory capacities. We know that this is seldom, if ever, the case. For example, each year hundreds of thousands of accidents take place in the home and in the workplace precisely because people have their attention focused away from the primary task at hand. They may be “daydreaming” or drowsy or in some other way distracted or impaired. The important thing is that these variances are quite individualistic in nature and are, in many instances, based on self-identity. The same can be said in the case of each of the examples cited above. If the person holding the tennis racquet is not a tennis player, they are just as likely to stare at the racquet in wonder as to try to hit an incoming ball. If the person sitting down to a meal is not hungry, they will be moved not to eat, but to walk away from the table.
This point of view finds corroboration in an alternate theory of affordances. Anthony Chemero in the essay ““An Outline of a theory of Affordances” (2003) claims that affordances that are perceived in the environment exist in neither the cognitive capacity of the observer or in objective nature. Instead, affordances are dynamic co-creations of the environment and the observer that cannot therefore accurately be understood as empirical attributes of the natural world. Chemero’s contention is that affordances are connected to an observer’s capacities and they are also connected to the environment, but they cannot truly be said to reside in either of these places. For example, if two items are placed next to each other, their relative size is an actual, measurable quantity, but it does not exist unless the two objects are viewed in relation to one another. According, to Chemero, affordances work along these lines, with the observer and the environment mutually creating them.
Chemero’s ideas are quite compatible with the notion that perception and self-identity are deeply connected. A person who is, by nature, a farmer will create more affordances with the natural environment that are conducive to growing food than a person who is primarily a musician. Similarly, the rocking of a tree in the wind will signal nothing more than potential bonfire material to an experienced woodcutter, while that same sound might provide the inspiration for the rhythm of a new song for a composer, or an example of aerodynamics for a physicist. Again, these are examples are quite obvious and this is intended to make the broad outline of the argument as clear as possible. Chemero’s conception of affordances offers strong support for the supposition that self-identity and perception exist in a symbiotic relation to one another.
If Chemeros’ conception of affordances is brought into combination with Prinz’s notions of AIM, it is clear that perception is, to a very large degree, a process of selection. This means that traditional models of perception that are based on the idea that environmental stimuli cause cognitive responses based proportionally on sensory acuteness are no longer applicable. Instead, models of perception must include subjective components such as individual attention and focus, as well as the capacity to co-create affordances with the objective environment. Obviously, one of the important components of this selection process is self-orientation, or self-identity. If an individual is a participant in the creation of affordance and also has the capacity to raise or diminish perceptual experiences through the focusing of attention, then there is a degree of apparent autonomy, or at least individuality, which is apparently an innate aspect of perception.
This goes beyond simply stating the overt fact that different perspective yield varying sensory experiences. While that is obviously the case, the current claim is a bit more complex in nature. My claim is that self-identity plays as large a role in perceptual experience as focus and attention. It is, in fact, one of the primary influences over what determines focus and attention in an individual. In terms of Chemero’s ideas, my conception would provide for instances where a person’s subjective self-identity is what creates their experience of affordances. The same can be said in regard to the way that an individual focuses their attention. To some degree, even the same can be said in relation to the concept of experienced mandates. In the case of this latter idea, self-identity probably plays less of a role than in regard to Chemero’s model, but, as previously pointed out, it is still within the realm of possibility to suggest that self-identity plays a role.
With the preceding considerations as a basic model, it is now possible to move to a few more nuanced ideas. One of these is based around O’Regan and Noë’s conception of visual perception as an action rather than a passive perception. This idea is tricky to follow, but is based on the idea that visual experience does not rise from direct stimulation of sensory and cortical functions by cues in the outer environment, but is actually based on a spectrum of “sensorimotor contingencies.” The authors claim that their conception of visual perception is the best way to account for “blind sight” as well as for changes in color perception. If visual conceptions take place without direct visual stimulation as in cases of “blind sight” then visual experience cannot be solely based on sensory interaction with the outer world. In fact, the authors’ assertions go much further, stipulating that the visual representation we experience of the world around is much more akin to a set of memory markers than to an illustration of the actual, objective world.
The authors’ envisioning of visual perception is very much in keeping with the idea that perception and self-identity are symbiotic capacities. If vision is an action, then the range of action and the purpose of action will be defined according to the subjective conditions impacting the observer. The outer world as a memory marker will look very different to a person who is in their home neighborhood than someone who is on a strange street in a foreign land. Similarly, a skier will have a different memory marker associated with a frozen slope than someone whose car has broken down on an icy incline. Self-identity is the primary agent of action in most cases, if not all cases. This means that the action of seeing, whether it is “blind sight” or referencing memory cues in the objective world is based primarily on subjective orientation and expectations.
This last consideration figures prominently in another nuanced aspect of my self-identity and perception model. This aspect corresponds to Andy Clark’s ideas in the essay ““Perceiving as Predicting” (2018). In this essay, Clark suggests that much of what is commonly understood as perception of the outside world is actually based around internal, cognitive predictions and expectations that take place on an unconscious level. Clark states that predictive cycles are calculated at various cognitive levels that are matched against incoming signals from decreasingly lower level. In other words, Clark views cognitive functions as being tiered, with lower cognitive levels sending signals to higher levels which, in turn, match signals to corresponding predictive “cascades.” According to Clark, this model provides an explanation not only for optical and other sensory “illusions” but also for perceptual errors and even mental deficiencies.
It is important to note that Clark never takes the step of suggesting that these predictive models are based in any way on subjective identity. However, if Clark’s notions are integrated with the preceding reflections on affordances, vision as action, and the AIM theory of perception, then it is possible to integrate Clark’s ideas quite easily into my own paradigm. In other words, it is only necessary to envision that one of the strata in Clark’s hierarchy includes notions of self-identity. This stratum might even represent the bridge between conscious and unconscious perceptions. Just as unconscious “cascades” match predictive models to incoming signals, self-identity matches predictive models based on subjective expectations and awareness to the incoming signals of lower cognitive levels.
This might seem to be a bit of a stretch in regard to Clark’s original intentions. However, even if this is the case, Clark’s ideas provide an interesting twist in my own paradigm of self-identity and perception. It may very well be that what we consider self-identity is merely another layer of cognition that makes predictive cycles about our own internal experiences and orientations. It may be the case that “we” like the outer-world are in a constant state of flux and the layer of cognition that is associated with self-identity simply makes predictions about our disposition and orientation that are analogous to those made by lower cognitive functions regarding sensory perception.
In any case, there are several objections that might be effectively raised to the preceding assertions. The first objection is that there is no empirical evidence provided for the supposition that self-identity is a stratum of cognition. It is just as likely that self-identity is the function of all levels of cognition, or that it is simply a construct that is used to refer to a vast set of cognitive functions. The second objection is that, even if it is granted that self-identity is a layer of cognition, it is a more or less non-quantifiable dimension of consciousness and cannot be measured in the same way as sensory stimuli. Therefore it is basically an un-testable theory. The final objection to the theory that self-identity is a stratum of cognition is that perception and sensory stimulation take place in organisms that, to our knowledge, possess no self-identity.
Each of these objections is valid and, for the time being, no adequate rebuttals exists for them. It is true that self-identity is a nebulous concept, but it is, like cognition itself, something that can be demonstrated by its effects, if not directly examined under a microscope. At the same time, the argument that self-identity need not be present in order for perception to take place is quite valid in its own right. On this account, the only thing that can really be said is that self-identity is a concept that must continuously be re-examined with a view toward making the definition as inclusive as possible without destroying its meaning. In other words, self-identity need not be limited to what is commonly understood to be a normal, functioning human self-identity, but may be understood to represent the (known) subjective orientation of particular observer.
One recent essay that may point a way for future studies is Michael Rescorla’s ““Bayesian Perceptual Psychology.” In this essay, Rescorla asserts that most experienced events are based not on objective stimuli, but on internal predictions based on statistical probabilities. Rescorla states that Bayesian predictive models can be used to show how these unconscious sensory predictions take place in perceptual consciousness.
One of the examples used in the article has to do with the refraction of light on a glass surface, According to Rescorla, when a person views refracted light, their perception is often at odds with what would be detected through objective instruments, or mathematical models. This shows that much of perception is guesswork with unconscious predictive models “filling in the gaps” of the empirical, outside world. (Rescorla). Obviously, this model is too complex to immediately apply to my own paradigm, but it does point the way toward areas of study and experimentation that might be used to shed further light on the connection between self-identity and perception. If this is the case, it is unlikely that self-identity will ever be a truly measurable quantity, but at the same time, its effects may be more accurately measured and factored into efforts to make contact with a non-subjective, empirical realty through scientific means.
The proposed connection between self-identity and perception outlined in this essay provide, at the very last, a profitable starting point for discussion and further inquiry. Whether or not it can ever be empirically “proven” that self-identity and perception are symbiotically related, it is certainly the case that exploring notions of self-identity and perception will be key in gaining further understanding not only of the mechanics of perception, but also of the social and cultural ramifications of our perceptual capacities and inherent biases as human beings. Gaining these insights might prove valuable for a range of issues, from politics to economics and science.
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