Monday, April 18, 2011

Strange Friends and New Lands

This is a post about thought and perception. The central intellectual work derives from an article Dave Hays and I wrote some years ago, Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process, in which we talk of physiognomic and propositional processes, a terminology we adopted for a contrast that has gone under other names, such as analog vs. digital, or holistic vs. analytic.

But I’d like to take an oblique approach, one based on the following remark Tim Morton made about his recent trip to Taiwan:
For about forty eight hours I was in full on weirdness mode as I explored a country I'd never been in. Objects, from lights to smells, seemed to float in front of their usual resting places, leering towards me like characters in an Expressionist painting. . . .

Then things began to settle down and I started to see foregrounds and backgrounds again. I started to be immersed in a world. It struck me that the sensual ether of causality floats in front of the illusion of structure. That's why you don't see it. Because you are looking for something behind the structure. The secret is right out in front of it, in your face.
There’s nothing particularly strange about what he says. You go to a new environment and it takes awhile to acclimate. Just what does it mean, first to encounter new things, then to accommodate to them?

Strange Friends and Maggie Thatcher

Let’s start with a bit of apparatus, something I’ve called the “strange friend” phenomenon. As I’ve described it in that paper Hays and I wrote:
You encounter a friend and notice there is something strange about her, but you don't exactly know what. You scrutinize her and finally realize that, e.g. she changed her hair style. Or perhaps you don't figure out what changed and instead must be told.
How could you fail to recognize someone you know, and know well. How could a relatively small change in appearance impede recognition?

This phenomenon is similar to one known in psychology as the Thatcher illusion. Here’s the Wikipedia gloss:
The Thatcher effect or Thatcher illusion is a phenomenon where it becomes difficult to detect local feature changes in an upside down face, despite identical changes being obvious in an upright face. It is named after British former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on whose photograph the effect has been most famously demonstrated.
In this case, nothing has changed about the familiar person. You’re just observing them from an unfamiliar perspective.

It’s as though basic recognition is holistic in such a way that a local change somewhere in the whole, or a presentation of the whole from a strange angle degrades or destroys the initial perceptual gestalt.

Physiognomy and Proposition

Let’s return to that paper that David Hays and I wrote. We wrote it to speculate on a neural mechanism for metaphor and used the term “physiognomic” to designate a holistic or Gestalt mode of perception. In our view, the physiognomic mode is the ‘leading edge’ of our perceptual capacities. That’s how we feel our way into the world. Only when we’ve got a physiognomic grasp do we then, if necessary, develop an analytic and propositional account of the same perceptual field. The propositional mode builds an account of the whole by composing a set of local features into an appropriate structure, as syntax combines words into a whole sentence.

So, your friend changes some aspect of her appearance and your physiognomic gestalt fails to match, to recognize, her current appearance. Our paper continues:
. . . the initial discrepancy between your basic global physiognomic schema for your friend and her current appearance then leads you to consult a representation which is built up on physiognomic parts and parts of parts, one which is a propositional construction of those physiognomic parts. You then search for the part of parts where discrepancy is greatest, that will tell you what has changed.

Propositional mechanisms build complex representations by linking component schemas together in various ways. A verbal description of a scene entails the analysis of that scene into various components—“The green car is to the left of the oak tree and to the right of the woolly mammoth.” The car must be extracted from the whole scene and greenness from the car, similarly the tree and the mammoth. And the spatial relationships between these objects must be made explicit. Notice further that for any but the simplest of visual scenes the amount of verbal description possible is endless— would you care to describe each hair on the woolly mammoth? Consider an artist who is painting this scene; if he is of the contemporary neorealist school he might attempt to paint each hair. The sequence of motor actions through which an artist manipulates pencil, pen, brush, etc. requires propositional mechanisms. The sequence of postulates and theorems the mathematician uses to describe geometrical objects is a still more abstract propositional representation.
So what’s this have to do with Morton’s problem?

What’s Strange about a Strange Land?

Taiwan is an alien planet. No triple moons and double star. No green atmosphere and large six-legged creatures with fur and feathers and quadruple eyes. Nothing that strange.

But lots of things will be just a bit off. The repertoire of physiognomic gestalts that Tim has ‘wrapped tightly’ around his home in California, they don’t fit so tightly around objects and things in Taiwan. And his hometown London repertoire doesn’t fit.

Think of it as a kind of perceptual shrink wrapping. When you shrink wrap a package, the first thing you do is put it into a loose plastic bag. Then you seal the bag. And then you heat it with a blow dryer. The heat shrinks the plastic until it’s tight around the package. Tim’s perceptual repertoire is shrink wrapped for California, London, and other settings he knows well. It’s not shrink wrapped for Taiwan. So he’s got to loosen things up – inflate the wrapping as it were – and then shrink them around the objects and events of his new environment.

The fact that Taiwan IS NOT an utterly strange world on an alien planet means that many of Tim’s familiar patterns will work, and that it is relatively easy to jury rig others on the spot. That is to say, Tim’s propositional systems (“the illusion of structure” Tim mentioned?), his analytical representations, will get him moving into and through the world. As he moves around, the perceptual shrink wrapping process brings him closer and more intimately into Taiwanese ways.

Taiwan had always been there in front of him, not fully present – for things are never fully present, are they? – but less present to him than to those who live there. It’s only when Tim had become more-or-less adapted to the ‘first layer’ Taiwanese space that things could properly withdraw themselves from him and coalesce into a proper Umwelt. In the way familiar to the Taiwanese.

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