Saturday, July 10, 2010

Four seasons in The Pillow Book

Partly because its nature is bestowed with much variety and the seasons are full of subtle changes, Japan has been a nation where its people have cultivated subtle sensitivities to qualia. Makura no Soshi ("The Pillow Book") authored by Sei Shonagon in the year 1002 is a collection of essays where poignant feelings are expressed in observing and experiencing the goings of nature and men. The Pillow Book is a classic in the art of qualia appreciation.

There is a particularly famous essay in The Pillow Book where Sei Shonagon extols the beautiful things we encounter during the course of the changes of the four seasons:

"Spring at daybreak. The mountain edges, gradually becoming whiter. As more lights come into this world, threads of purple clouds flowing in the sky."

"Summer at night. More beautiful when there's the moon. When in total darkness, lots of fireflies airborne to and fro. Or only a few fireflies, leaving traces of faint lights. Otherwise, gentle rain falling all around"

"Autumn at sunset. The mountain edges looking nearer in the red sunbeam. A few birds in the sky hurrying back to their nests. An array of flying geese, looking so small in the distant sky. As the sun finally sets, no words can describe the beauty of the sound of the wind, the chirping of the insects."

"Winter in the early morning. Perfect when the snow is falling. With or without the white frost, making fire in haste, and carrying around the burning charcoals. How becoming to the winter morning."

(Translated from the original by Ken Mogi)

A copy of The Pillow Book in the Edo era. From the National Institute of Japanese Literature webpage

Friday, July 09, 2010

Trust your qualia. Let them do the work for you.

The beauty of appreciating a work of art, or a natural scene, or anything that you can experience in this world, is that you can do so without any prior knowledge. Learning and knowing factual and historical information about a work of art will surely help you in understanding the significance of the work. When it comes to appreciating the work in terms of qualia, however, knowledge does not help. It can even hinder the appreciation from time to time.

The qualia belong to the "here and now". Perceiving and receiving something through qualia do not require preparation in the form of learning before the event. Instead of adhering to and logically extrapolating from a system of knowledge, you can just open your mind, and trust your intuition. You need not know anything about the art of work in front of you. Trust your qualia. Let them do the work for you.

In Koryuji temple, Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan for 1200 years, there is a famous and beautiful statue of Miroku-Bosatsu (Maitreya). The statue is estimated to date back to the 7th century. The origin of the wooden fabrication is not known. It could have been an artifact imported from the Korean peninsula, or could have been made in Japan. The aesthetic value of the statue is firmly established among the learned circles, and should be evident to anyone with an open mind. It became the first designated National Treasure of Japan in 1951.

The statue is so elegant and beautiful. There was once a high profile incident in which a University student "held" the statue, entranced by its beauty, breaking one its delicately curved fingers. The criminal prosecution was eventually dropped, and the statue has been restored to perfection since.

Imagine that someday you make that special journey all the way to Koryuji. As you stand in front of the Miroku-Bosatsu statue, your consciousness will be overflowed with various shades of qualia. There will be unconscious processes, too, but those would not be accessible nor reportable.

You might be equipped with some knowledge of the Buddhist belief system. What Maitreya stands for, the significance of a Buddhist statue of worship, the historical background about the Buddhist artifacts in Japan and East Asia. However, all those knowledge will not ultimately help you in appreciating the beautiful statue in front of you. You can only sense its essence as a work of art in terms of qualia that occupies your phenomenal experience. The qualia belong to the "here and now". So is a piece of art when it is appreciated in the physical immediacy.

The Miroku-Bosatsu statue in Koryuji temple, Kyoto.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

"Sensori-intentional" matching

When we turn our attention to the role of qualia played within the brain's system, "communication" also surfaces as a major theme. The functional role of qualia in facilitating communication within the brain is a fundamental one. In order to understand the essense of communicative qualia, one needs to study the phenomenology of subjectivity.

Qualia are tightly coupled with subjectivity. After all, it is "I" that perceive the redness of red. A quale does not exist as an objective entity like an electron or a nucleus. A quale does not float in the mid-air. A quale exists only in reference to a subject such as "I", and makes sense only to that person.

Studies of sensory perception, for example visual perception, have made it clear that in order for a subject to "perceive" a quale, two networks in the brain need to match. One is the sensory network that receives the input from the sensory peripherals (such as the retina in the case of vision). The other is the "intentional" network that is centered in the prefrontal area of the brain, and supports the self-consciousness. The sensory network provides the basic material for the qualia, while the intentional network provides the infrastructure for subjectivity. When these networks meet, the subject "I" perceive the qualia coded by activities of neurons in the sensory network ("sensori-intentional" matching).

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

After a dinner party, each person takes home different sets of sensory information.

From the evolutionary perspective, there might be functional significance in the fact that qualia are private in nature and yet support our communication in the practical sense, especially in the verbal domain.

Each human being is differently composed, in terms of genetic components but also, and more importantly, in the range of experiences in the day to day lives. When several people are talking over a dinner table, for example, it might appear that they are getting more or less similar sets of sensory information. Nothing could be far from the truth. Even when sitting in the same room, the visual scene for each person is different. The miscellaneous components of the scene such as the faces of people, furniture, view from the window, the wall paper, the ceiling, etc. are differently presented to each person's mind. As the times goes by, each person will accumulate uniquely composed sets of sensory experiences and memories. Thus, after a dinner party, each person takes home different sets of sensory information.

The heterogeneity in experiences and memories become far greater when one considers the different modes of lives that each one of us lead. As we go about in the course of our daily lives, we experience and register sensory information unique to each of us. These differences accumulate over the years, resulting in quite differently composed sets of information stored in the brain.

The heterogeneity in how we look at the world can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and even conflicts. On the other hand, heterogeneity is a good thing, as we humans have a remarkable ability to share. By sharing the experiences, we can "combine" the different elements of this world as perceived and then stored in the brain's memory system. Through combination, we can generate new things. Qualia, by making elements of our phenomenal experiences accessible to the self and thus verbally reportable, support this sharing and combination process.

After a dinner party, each person takes home different sets of sensory information.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Mr. Qualia seems to be private but is actually rather communicative.

The fact that certain qualia can arise only from experiencing the real thing in the immediacy of actual presence does not, of course, preclude the possibility of discussing about it. When one is deeply moved by an experience, whether by a work of art or traveling to places, one has a natural urge to discuss about the experience with other people. (I am actually telling my friends time and gain how wonderful "Girl with a pearl earring" or the Ise Grand Shrine are!) To the degree that qualia are consciously accessible, one can discuss about them, although it is not always possible (and perhaps in principle quite impossible) to put them to appropriate words.

Here's a real food for thought. We tend to think that conscious experience is essentially private in nature. There is no way to ascertain that the "redness of red" experienced by one person is the same as that experienced by another. So it comes as a kind of surprise to realize that one's ability to access qualia in the phenomenal domain acually lays the foundations for everyday communication.

Horace Barlow, a very respected brain scientist and my mentor at Cambridge once said in a conference that the most important role of consciousness was probably to assist communication. If we personify Mr. Qualia, the hallmark of consciousness, he seems to be very private with a capital P but is actually rather communicative. If all our experiences were unconscious, it is difficult to communicate any element of our mental activities to other people.

Horace Barlow giving a talk.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The immediacy principle

The fact that certain sets of qualia can be experienced and appreciated only in directly facing the actual work of art can be called the "immediacy principle". Reproductions in terms of photos and videos, or descriptions by words are not sufficient in bringing about the qualia in the observer's mind, as they lack the immediacy of experience.

The immediacy principle can be also applied to the qualia of places. Just like you have to see the "real thing" in order to appreciate a work of art to the full, you simply have to actually travel to a spot to experience the full range of qualia that are invoked by your
presence at that location.

When I traveled to the Ise Grand Shrine for the first time around the age of 30, I had no premonition of what was to come. Naturally, I had heard about its extraordinary significance in the Shinto tradition, and the venerable historic fact that the shrines have been rebuilt alternatingly every 20 years (the "Sengu" tradition) for the last 1200 years. But all of these did not prepare myself for the real thing. The qualia of Ise can be experienced and appreciated only at the location, through the immediate perception and cognition of one's surroundings. Once you have traveled to Ise, it becomes possible to "relive" the qualia through the act of recollecting. Otherwise, it is simply not possible. You just have to make that one trip.

The old shrine site waiting for the next Sengu at Ise Grand Shrine. Photographing of the current shrine site is forbidden.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

You can appreciate the qualia unique to a work of art only when facing the real thing.

I once had an opportunity to admire at leisure the "Girl with a pearl earring" painting in its home of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. There is always a huge crowd eager to see this masterpiece (sometimes called "the Mona Lisa of the North") when it is on tour away from its home museum. When this painting travelled to Japan, there was a record number of people qeueing to take a glimpse of it. There was no question of establishing an intimate relation with the girl in the canvas.

It was thus refreshingly rewarding to come face to face at last with the beautiful girl of immortality wearing the famous pearl earring and a blue headpiece.

It is a practically interesting and theoretically intriguing fact that you can appreciate the qualia unique to a work of art only when facing the real thing. Once you have taken in the actual qualia, it becomes possible to "reproduce" them in your memory, aided or unaided by reproductins such as an imitation or a photograph. Unless you have seen the real thing, however, it is impossible to imagine what it is like to be in front of that piece of art, no matter how accurate the reproduction or how appropriate the description.

The mouth. From "Girl with a pearl earring" by Johannes Vermeer.