Note! At nearly 3,000 words, this is an essay more than a blog post. I hope you’ll find it interesting and thought-provoking, but you may want to wait to read it until you have 15-20 minutes of peace and quiet to spare. You might also need a cup of coffee!
A while back, I wrote a post called The radar simulation. As far as posts go, it turned out to be a pretty big dud. While I knew that far from everyone is able to get anything from auto-stereograms, I thought the number was in the 10-15 percent range. Judging from the comments, several of my regular commenters couldn’t see anything, so I guess that was a fairly pointless exercise. 😉
On a more positive note, one of the comments, left by Gus Davis, did raise some issues that I wanted to get back to. Gus’s suggestion was basically that Matt’s radar sense experience would be more vivid than what I suggested with my black on black auto-stereograms since he was once sighted and could imagine things based on input collected from his other senses combined with visual memories of things. Gus compares this with the way our mind’s eye fills things in for us when we hear a familiar sound.
Perception versus the “mind’s eye”
My response to Gus would be that we are really talking about two different things. What I tried to illustrate with the auto-stereogram post was the raw sensory experience of what having a colorless, three-dimensional spatial ability might be like. Using one of the examples Gus mentions – the sound of someone knocking on the door conjuring up an (internal) image of a person knocking – this would be analogous to trying to describe what it is like to hear knocking, or to hear anything at all for that matter, rather than what the brain does with that information further down the processing stream.
It would make perfect sense for Matt to put together an “image” or basic understanding of things he perceives, because this kind of mental imagery is something everyone is capable of, whether they have a full set of senses or not. In fact, I thought the panel above, from Daredevil #19, was a very good example of mental imagery. Here, Chris Samnee draws Daredevil listening to the sound of a lock opening in the distance, alongside an image of said lock. This is obviously meant to show the reader what he is hearing while avoiding unnecessary exposition or overly complicated sound effects. But, the use of a contrasting color and the way the panel is laid out doesn’t just show the particular event taking place, it also shows Daredevil becoming aware of what’s happening. But is this the same as actually seeing it happen? And, does imagery even have to be visual? I’ll get to that below, but first, let’s cover one more thing.
What is the essence of “redness”?
We all make inferences – more or less automatically – about the world based on past experiences and associations. However, that doesn’t explain the essence of the sensory experience that prompts the association. These unique “experiential” properties of our senses is what philosophers refer to as qualia. The difficulty in talking about sensory qualia becomes evident the second you start thinking about how you would explain what Mozart sounds like to someone born deaf. Or even how you would explain what red looks like to the substantial proportion of the (mostly male) population who has some kind of color vision defect. This even raises the question of whether everyone experiences red the same way. You and I may both agree that a Coke can is red, but does our sense of red overlap? Is your red the same as my red? Provided that we both have normal vision, the odds are pretty good that they do (we are members of the same species, after all), but this is the kind of thing that is quite frankly impossible to know for sure.
Philosophical conundrums aside, there is clearly something it is like to experience red that is different from simply knowing about colors on an intellectual level. An imaginary colorblind physicist could learn everything there is to know about the color red – that it is a property ascribed to objects which reflect light with a wavelength between 700 and 635 nm – and develop tools which tell him which objects fall into this category. However, this doesn’t give him the experience of “redness.” What I was trying to do with the auto-sterogram post was to try to approximate my own idea of “radarness,” the qualia of a spatial pseudo-visual sense devoid of color.
The limits of imagery
The name of this post is “why believing isn’t seeing.” What I mean by that is that the link between an external stimulus and mental imagery is of a very different nature than the association between that stimulus and our immediate perception of it, through the relevant sense(s).
Imagine that we have two test subjects – we’ll call them Bill and Bob – and let us expose them to an experimental stimulus. If we let both Bill and Bob listen to a sound of rustling leaves coming from behind a partition, what’s going to happen in their minds?
Bill might start thinking of playing in the leaves every fall as a child, and may even remember how his mom made him hot cocoa when he came back in the house. He might see an entire scene play out in his mind’s eye, and might even connect it to the taste of the cocoa or the smell of burning leaves. On the other hand, he might just get a rapidly fading image of a pile of leaves, especially if he is only given a brief moment to listen to the sound before something else commands his attention. Bill’s “snapshot leaves” may be maple leaves, and he may return to pretty much the same image in his head every time he hears the sound of rustling leaves.
Bob’s leaves, on the other hand, might be aspen. He may have grown up in a completely different part of the country. He may not have the strong personal memories of playing in the leaves as Bills does. Maybe the sound doesn’t even remind him of leaves at all, but of his grandmother who often used to play a new age-inspired “sounds of the rainforest” CD when he visited her house. My point is that even though Bill and Bob are listening to the exact same sound, which activates the same group of hair cells in their respective cochelae, their responses to what they are hearing is different. They are similar, absolutely. In both men, the sound evokes “leafiness” and stimulates their brains’ “leaf category,” but there is no 1:1 relationship between what they are hearing and what their mind’s eye is doing.
As we pull away the partition separating the two men from the source of the sound, we may be surprised to se a pile of birch leaves dancing in front of a fan. However, we might find that there are no leaves at all, but a stereo playing a recording of leaves blowing. The two men’s idea of what’s behind the magic curtain could be 100% wrong. The imagery they experienced, having access to only one aspect of the whole scene (sound in this case) would still be completely rational, and part of an essential ability of the human mind to categorize and draw logical conclusions, but it clearly couldn’t replace the missing information.
Mental imagery in the blind
First of all, I think we can all agree that these connections we make between the things we pick up through our senses and our internal representations involve all of our senses. The sound of coffee brewing can elicit a strong sense of being able to smell the coffee before the scent even reaches us. Seeing a painting of the ocean may remind us of the sounds of waves breaking against the shore and the taste of salt. In fact, more and more research is showing just how intertwined our senses are. Even the best wine experts in the world can be fooled by something as simple as white wine dyed to appear red. The way the lips move when someone is speaking actually influences what we hear (this is known as the McGurk effect and is demonstrated here) to the point where even knowing about this phenomenon can’t undo it. It’s increasingly clear that our senses combine to create a unified experience of our world.
Still, we often talk about thinking in pictures and, as highly visual primates, it’s no wonder that we think of images as being central to imagery. For people born blind, visual images are obviously not a part of their experience of the world. But what about people who lose their sight later in life? To what extent does visual imagery remain a part of their internal worlds? The answer to that question is apparently a very big “it depends.”
In his book The Mind’s Eye, my very favorite neurologist Oliver Sacks mentions several different cases. One is that of John Hull, who details the loss of his sight in middle age in the book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness. Hull describes experiencing something he refers to as “deep blindness.” Shortly after losing his sight, he started losing his ability for visual imagery and was distressed to discover that he could no longer visualize the faces of his loved ones. Within two years, this progressed to the point where he could no longer even remember what seeing was like. However, his experience is far from typical.
In stark contrast to Hull’s experience, Sacks also mentions the case of Zoltan Torey, an Australian psychologist who had lost his sight in an accident at age twenty-one. Torey’s coping mechanism in response to total blindness was to develop his inner eye to the best of his ability. Sacks writes:
“In this, he said, he had been extremely successful, developing a remarkable power of generating, holding, and manipulating images in his mind, so much so that he had been able to construct a virtual visual world that seemed as real and intense to him as the perceptual one he had lost – indeed, sometimes more real, more intense. This imagery, moreover, enabled him to do things that might have seemed scarcely possible for a blind man.
‘I replaced the entire roof guttering of my multi-gabled home single-handed,’ he wrote, ‘and solely on the strength of the accurate and well-focused manipulation of my now totally pliable and responsive mental space.’ Torey later expanded on this episode, mentioning the great alarm of his neighbors at seeing a blind man alone on the roof of his house – at night (even though, of course, darkness made no difference to him).
And he felt that his newly strengthened visual imagery enabled him to think in ways that had not been available to him before, allowed him to project himself inside machines and other systems, to envisage solutions, models, and designs.”
If we want to try to imagine what Matt Murdock’s inner world looks like, it’s important to remember that his radar sense, whatever it is, supports an accurate sense of space. He doesn’t need to work as hard as the average blind person at creating a spatial map in his head, even though his inability to “see” color and detail (and signage!) puts a higher demand on his other senses to fill in as much missing information as possible. Still, the question becomes to what extent he would be actively trying to enrich this pseudo-visual experience with visual imagery.
As I hope we’ve already established, constructing a full image of what something might be like from a limited amount of information is not always reliable (remember Bill and Bob…) and may have little to do with external reality. There is no denying that Zoltan Toreys’ brand of mind-mapping is useful to him or that a blind person who was previously sighted can get a very rich experience from having a painting or scene described to her. But in many cases, there is no way for a blind person to actually verify the accuracy of his or her visual imagery and in no way does imagery replace either the experience or function of eye sight.
In Matt’s case, he’s free to imagine Foggy wearing a polka dot suit to work every day if he wants to, but the question is whether this is at all useful for him. The information revealing the true state of affairs is unavailable to him through his remaining senses and no amount of imagery can make up for it. Trying to use all of his available senses to reach the best possible understanding of his surroundings is one thing, and is no different from what you and I do, but my own take on the character is more in line with what Mark Waid described in Daredevil #1 (with art by Marcos Martín, seen above). Many descriptive categories that sighted people use to make sense of the world are of no practical value to him. And, to get back Gus’s original comment, the knowledge and memory of sight should have limited bearing on the immediate experience (qualia) of his non-visual senses, including radar.
The problem with Bendis
So, I’m going to have to get a little rough on Brian Bendis again (even though I’m sort of going to let him off the hook for this one). Don’t blame me, it’s all Gus’s fault for mentioning Bendis’s writing as an example of Matt consciously filling in missing information. 😉 Gus is absolutely right, though. I can think of at least two cases where Bendis has Matt actively create a scene in his mind while we as readers follow along by looking at the art. The one that will be most familiar to readers is probably this page from Daredevil #43 (vol 2) where Matt studies Milla, who has come to visit him in his office, and we see her gradually come into focus (art by Alex Maleev).
A longer and more detailed example of this “filling in” process comes from Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #7, by Bendis and Bill Sienkiewicz, and can be seen below in two pages worth of panels.
In both of these examples, Bendis – through Matt’s internal monologue – takes us on a little tour of what kind of information it is that Matt is paying attention to as be builds his image. While this is happening, the artist’s rendering of the scene becomes gradually sharper. Focusing mostly on the art, one might easily be lead to believe that Bendis intends for us to take the image appearing before Matt’s senses literally. There is a strong suggestion that the image Matt is building in his mind and the one you or I would see before our eyes is virtually one and the same.
Personally, I think this is a unfortunate, especially as that conclusion doesn’t actually line up with the writing. Bendis himself puts disclaimers in there, such as “So, even though I will never see him the way you do…” Add to this the fact that all the things that Matt is picking up on as he narrates the scene are things that are very non-visual. The fact that the man above is a sweaty smoker whose positions Matt can pinpoint from the heat of his body would really tell him nothing about what he looks like. He can probably pull up a stereotypical image of someone who fits that description and used to live in his neighborhood as a kid, for reference, but that can never be a literal representation of the man in front of him.
In my mind, this kind of storytelling technique, interesting and beautiful as it may be, greatly exaggerates the visual properties of Matt’s understanding of the world. We are lead to believe that he is in a position to make educated inferences about appearances that his senses really shouldn’t allow for.
This was a long one! My goal here was to 1) explain my intentions with the radar simulation (auto-stereogram) post, i.e. to capture the qualia of the radar experience, and 2) try to make the distinction between the primary physical experience of our senses – and their relationship to the external world – on the one hand, and our internally generated mental images on the other. I want to thank Gus for leaving the comment that inspired this post.
I also want to take the opportunity to point out that my intention with this and other Daredevil science posts is not necessarily to get anyone to conform to my own view of how Daredevil should be interpreted. Every reader, and writer for that matter, should feel free to imagine for themselves what being inside Daredevil’s body is like. What I try to bring to the table is whatever information I might have come across over the years to try to explain things in Daredevil’s world as they pertain to real world phenomena.
So, feel free to disagree with me! And, I would love it if you did so in the comment section. Who knows, it might inspire a whole new post? 😉