Monday, October 12, 2009

Synesthesia and Creativity - The Muse is in the Interconnections

In the previous blog posting, I teid to explain the recent findings that synesthesia is a relatively common condition and results from interconnections between the various sensory components in the brain. So, for example, the colour region may be interconnected with the region responsible for identifying letters. With this the letter "B" could be associated with the colour pink So the subject would report B as being pink.

Interconnections such as this have been proposed by the computer scientist David Gelernter as the basis for human reasoning. He did so in a book entitled "The Muse in the Machine" Gelernter recognizes that the mind is a functional part of the human being. It evolved to help the entire being function within its environment and to say the same thing its functions are defined by the need of the human being to function within that environment. The mind is not an abstract device separated from reality as is the common assumption.

Gelernter identifies the bases of the mind's mechanisms as emotions and memory. By emotion, Gelernter means a way by which the organism can capture and characterize its current state. The commonly known emotions of fear and hunger are obvious examples of this but Gelernter expands this to include very fine-grained feelings that blur the lines between the distinct feelings that are commonly viewed as emotions. He shows how a composite feeling of contentment and anticipation on a boat trip can be viewed as a distinct emotion, for example. With this ability to finely characterize a situation by an emotion, the organism can identify similar situations that it met in the past. It can then select its actions based on the success or failure of actions in past similar situations. His view of the mind is similar to the common engineering techniques of case-based and memory-based reasoning.

However Gelernter expands on these common models by showing how his views on emotions link to poetry as an example of a higher human faculty that is commonly thought to be unexplainable at the functional level. Gelernter identifies that the method for matching of situations by emotional memory may by either loosely of tightly focussed. Tight focus is conventional reasoning in which details are important. Loose focus allows apparently disparate situations to be matched based only on the structure of the connections in the constituent emotions. This type of reasoning is what Gerlernter states as the source of creativity. It is what allows a poet to find common ground with his reader as Gelernter demonstrates with his comparison of his idea to T.S. Eliot's 'objective correlative.' Gelernter shows his ideas with examples from the English Romantic poets and from apparently inexplicable passages from the Bible which can be explained as examples of loosely focussed emotional connectivity.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Synethesia and Creativity

Synesthesia is a form of perception in which sensory impressions are crossed. So, in one example, people will experience colour as a musical tone. Higher level impressions can be crossed as well so alphabetic letters can be experienced with colours. So, for example, the letter ‘B’ may be experienced with a shade of pink. It had long been thought that synesthesia was a rare condition. As such, it did not receive much research interest. However current research has found that at least one percent of the population exhibit synestesic perception. It is not a rare condition. However people who experience it are surprised to find that others do not share their experience. They learn to keep silent about their perceptions.

Current research has shown that synesthesia arises because of connections between centres of perception. So using the colour/letter example above, a brain scan will show the region concerned with colour will be activated when the letter ‘B’ is presented to the subject. It was thought that these cross connections were unusual but it has been found by research that they are a standard part of the structure of the brain. In subjects without synesthesia, these connections are inactive but they are present. A research question arises as to why thee interconnections exist if their functioning is suppressed.