📆 February 5, 2022 | ⏱️ 11 minute read

Paying Close Attention to Experience

Explaining Color to a Blind-From-Birth Person

I was watching this video of a child trying to explain to a blind-from-birth man what color is like. Everybody knows it’s an impossible task and inevitably the child soon learns this out as well.

One can explain to a sightless person which objects have which colors, the wavelength of each color, every color’s cultural significance, and give analogies to what it’s like to see color. But no matter how much one tries to explain it, the unsighted person will still be missing the most important aspect of color: the experience of seeing it.

No amount of facts about color seems to add up to the experience. If given the choice between knowing every fact about a color and having the ability to see it, I don’t know anybody who would choose the former. Knowledge just doesn’t replace experience.

I’m reminded of a relevant quote from the movie Good Will Hunting which gets at the heart of knowledge versus experience. It’s fairly lengthy so I’ll just link to the clip.

Explaining Color to a Sighted Person

Everybody knows you can’t explain color to a blind person but people don’t realize you can’t really describe color to sighted people either. Think of a young child. Someone else says the name of the color and points to it. After some repetition, the child learns the names of common colors.

During this process, no information about color is communicated to the child. The sighted child can already see color. They only learn which words corresponds to which colors. So how does one know that the child sees the same red and that they aren’t just using the same word to talk about a different color?

How would one communicate color itself rather than just the agreed upon name of the color? It seems impossible. Vsauce has an excellent video about this titled “Is Your Red The Same as My Red?”. He wonders if we can ever communicate what a color is.

Philosophers like Daniel Dennett suggest that color might not be ineffable. Perhaps we just don’t have the language to communicate color yet. If only we had precise enough words, using sufficiently many of them, we could communicate the experience of seeing color. I’m skeptical, but for now color is ineffable in every human language. All we can do is agree on common words.

We Are All Alone In Our Minds

And this ineffability of experience also generalizes to things besides color. I’ll give a few examples.

Wave your hand back and forth. How are you doing that? Try to pay close attention to what you’re doing when you move your hand. How are you moving it? You can point out which muscles are expanding and contracting. You know objectively that the brain is sending signals to the muscles to cause them to move in the right ways.

But none of that captures the subjective experience of moving your hand. Words can’t seem to capture what that’s like. If you’re ever asked to explain how you move, all you can do is throw your hands up. (pun intended) You don’t have the faintest idea how you’re doing it. All you can do is resort to analogies and facts.

We have no way to know if your red is the same as my red, or more generally, if your experience of anything is the same as mine. I cannot climb into your consciousness to see if your experience matches mine and you cannot climb into mine. We’re all alone in our own subjectivity.

Mapping Subjective Experiences To Objective Reality

If you ask someone who lacks any understanding of anatomy how their hand moves, what will they say? Nothing about the subjective experience of moving your hand offers any clue that the muscles in it are activated by electrical signals from your brain. Yet objectively, we know that’s what’s happening.

We know the brain is composed of billions of neurons and synapses. Yet conscious experience offers no clue. Isn’t it strange that subjective experience doesn’t hint at these objective anatomic realities?

The Explanatory Gap

Although we may know certain processes in objective reality correspond to certain experiences, we don’t know why. Why does pain feel the way it feels and not some other way? Some philosophers think we can never fully account for this. They think the explanatory gap cannot be bridged. Others insist it can.

Paying Close Attention to Experience

These questions are fascinating for philosophers, but the nature of one’s own consciousness is in principle of interest to everybody. I think people believe it’s not interesting only because they don’t/can’t pay close enough attention to notice their experience.

Pay attention to your field of view. Not to any particular object within it, but to your field of view itself. What shape is your field of view? Is there a boundary or is it boundless?

Can you tell that you have two eyes by looking at your field of view or is it just one continuous uninterrupted space? You have two optic blind spots, but can you see them? Do you have two holes in your vision or is your brain filling that in before you see them?

When you feel sensations in your body, how is it that you know where they are? How can you tell the difference between someone tapping you on your left shoulder versus your right? What is it about the sensation that lets you know where it is?

Based only on your subjective experience, do you have a head? You can picture yourself from behind with a head, but where is your head in your experience? You look down and see your torso and legs. You can touch your finger to your forehead, but the tip of your finger just disappears and you feel a sensation. So where is your head?

Look in the mirror and find a body with a head and eyes looking at you. What is mirror-you looking at? Bringing the mirror closer, you can see only one eye. This is what you look like up close. Even closer with a microscope, you look like individual cells. Looking from increasingly far distances, you are a town, a country, the Earth, solar system, or the Milky Way.

Do you ever move? Or is it everything else that moves? When you walk down the sidewalk, are you walking yourself or is the world streaming by?

Do you have a past or future or only an eternal present? Memories of the past and thoughts of the future are replayed, but when and where do these interruptions occur?

Do you age? Go watch the ticking of a clock. Now feel the beating of your heart. Where are these two processes occurring? Does the space in which they’re occurring age? Did it have a beginning or end?

Going by only your present experience, not your memory or imagination, what does it feel like to be you? Close your eyes and trace every part of your body with your attention. Can you make out your precise shape or does it feel like a cloud of sensations? Do you notice every part of your body at once or only points of tension?

Pay attention to the very next thought that comes to mind. What is its origin? Where is its destination? Imagine a green alien with antennas. Now imagine a yellow star. How are you doing that? Is the star vivid or blurry? Can you replay a song? What’s the difference between playing a song and thinking?

Do your thoughts and feelings leave a mark on awareness? Can they perturb awareness? Can something someone says change you? Do you create your thoughts and emotions or do they just happen? Where is your personality?

Now breathe manually. How does it feel different from breathing automatically? Recall something you did. Now recall something that happened to you. How do you know the difference between what you do and what happens to you? Does it feel different? If yes, how?

Repeat a word or phrase aloud over and over. Do you stop hearing the word/phrase and just hear the sounds? Does the same result happen if you repeat the word in your mind?

The Mind Is A Laboratory

I’m offering these experiments to put you into the headspace of paying close, unobstructed attention to your own experience. I don’t expect that you’ll have definitive answers to all these questions. And besides, that’s not really the point. I’m just trying to get you curious about own experience.

Your mind is your own personal laboratory where you can perform experiments. For instance, you can try multiplying two two-digit numbers in your head and observe what happens as you try to do that. Does observing the calculation make it more difficult? Do you see the numbers visually in your head or how are you keeping track of them?

You can make up whatever experiments you want and perform them. I call them “mindsperiments”. Through repetition, you can make them more scientific and confirm hypothesis about your mind. The only limit is your imagination.

The Mind Is A New Frontier

When people talk about “the final frontier”, they’re usually talking about places that are far away and mysterious, like beyond the Milky Way galaxy. But the mind is also a new frontier for each of us. The problem isn’t that it’s too far though. It’s the most local phenomenon of all and yet we’re subjectively unaware of much of anything it does.

There’s all sorts of unconscious mental machinery going on in the background that we’re not normally aware of. A fish living in water its whole life doesn’t know what water is. However, some humans are aware of the unconscious mental machinery, because they lack it.

Unconscious Mental Machinery

Some people’s fusiform gyrus, the part of the brain responsible for facial recognition, is impaired. This causes face blindness, or the inability to recognize facial features. It’s hard for most of us to even imagine not having that ability because it’s not something we notice. Nonetheless facial recognition is something we’re all doing.

People with Autism lack the ability to identify others’ emotions. Most humans have emotion recognition as a metaphorical built-in API. If autistic people can identify others’ emotions at all, they do it through very deliberate thinking. It happens at the level of conscious effort rather than through the metaphorical API.

Think about language. You effortlessly convert your thoughts into speech. And you easily understand others’ speech. Neither of these are trivial tasks and yet you do them without even trying. These processes happen “underneath” conscious awareness.

When I’m learning a new language, at first I don’t process the speech as fast as my native language. I hear a phrase, I’m confused for a few moments and then suddenly, I understand. There’s a subjectively observable delay in listening comprehension.

That mysterious process where I go from not understanding to that “Aha!” moment is utterly fascinating to me. No matter how many times I observe it happen it has remained a mystery to me exactly what happens during that transition.

The point is people are normally not aware of unconscious mental processes unless they’re lacking, but it’s possible to be much more aware, to have a totally different relationship to your own mind than the one you have now.

A hundred thousand years ago if you didn’t know which berries were poisonous, you ate the wrong ones and died as a consequence of environmental ignorance. The same can be said of your mind. It’s your mental environment. If you’re unfamiliar, how do you expect to survive and thrive?

Know Thyself

When we have negative thoughts and emotions rather than positive ones, we assume this is our mind working against us. We feel at war with ourselves. And we want to change our minds so that stops happening. Well if you want to change your mind, it helps to first take stock of it.

What is possible for you? What mental equipment are you dealing with? Most of us don’t have the slightest clue what we’re capable of. We have a limited partial picture of our minds at any given time and most of us aren’t even paying attention to that. How can we expect to change our minds when we understand so little about them?

Until you practice introspection or some equivalent, you’re just flying blind. You’ve learned to avoid intense pain and pursue temporary pleasure, but beyond that you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re still vaguely dissatisfied most of the time and you assume that’s the best that’s available for you.

Well don’t assume. Instead, pay attention to experience and accept what you find. Treat your mind like a laboratory and run experiments. Instead of seeing life as an obstacle, think of it as a teacher and learn its lessons. Treat each moment as the only one, not as preparation for the next and don’t be afraid to let go.

Trust Thyself

Above all, trust yourself. If what I say here doesn’t match your subjective experience, then disregard me. I don’t know what it’s like to be you. What’s true about my mind is different from what’s true about yours and you’ll only learn about yourself through careful observation, not by reading my journal. I’m just trying to inspire you into taking the first step and hopefully following all the way through till the end.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” - Siddharta Gautama