1. About Ourselves in the World

Same Boat

To varying degrees, we each have common human capabilities and limitations. We have imperfect sensing capabilities. We have nervous systems that can mislead and misinform us. We have physiological and neurological limitations. In this respect we are all “in the same boat,” but yet we are each uniquely-individual human beings with different-sized and types of paddles, so to speak. If we don’t acknowledge these differences in our capabilities and limitations, we will misunderstand our perceptions of the world around us. So, how do we work?


from The Brain: Our Universe Within, Evolution and Perception (1994)

  • The cortex, or “new brain,” (also called the neocortex) modulates our reactions and responses to our sensory experiences. This “human thinking cap” contains the basis for our verbal abilities to think, plan, read, write, imagine, etc. All of our knowledge, memory, and processing of sensory inputs (other than smell), reside in the cortex.
  • Since birth, your brain develops its complex structures in response to the outside environments that you experience. The neural connections which will ultimately determine how you will respond to your experiences are shaped and molded by your specific environments as you grow and develop.
  • The relatively-large neocortex is the primary characteristic that makes humans unique from other species.
  • The human brain has been evolving over 500 million years, but each individual brain also evolves over the course of an individual lifetime. Personal experiences mold and shape the brain. We are not predestined creatures.
  • To what degree are we not only constrained or limited by our genes, but also imprisoned by the environments we experience, e.g., poverty, violence, prejudice?

Jeff Hawkins, 2009 J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture

The transcript of Hawkins’ lecture (“Why can’t a computer be more like a brain?”), with photos of the slides presented, is available here with permission of the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, which sponsors the annual lecture series. Key points:

  • Neurons, or nerve cells, form and structure spatial and temporal (sequenced, ordered) patterns that results in your sensory experiences. These experiences are based on your “model of the world” that your brain has created.
  • Your brain: 1) discovers causes in the world; 2) infers from new or unfamiliar patterns; 3) predicts the future in terms of expectations; 4) creates or initiates motor behavior.
  • The firing of neurons in all their complexity of connections and networks, structured in spatial and temporal patterns, represents the “currency” of the brain. Hawkins:

“Your perception of the world is really a fabrication of your model of the world. You don’t really see light or sound. You perceive it because your model says this is the way the world is, and those patterns invoke the model.”

About the Brain, Jeff Hawkins (4:04)

What the Brain Does, Jeff Hawkins (1:50)

Patterns in the Brain, Jeff Hawkins (1:47)

V.S. Ramachandran, from “Secrets of the Mind” (2002)

  • The brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, each of which may form connections with perhaps one thousand other neurons.
  • Your brain constructs or creates a “body image” or sensory awareness of your own physiological parts, processes, etc.
  • “Phantom” pain from a missing or amputated limb provides an example of the fact that “pain” is a nervous system construct. The nervous system (brain) can be fooled with different types of visual stimulation, which further illustrates how the brain responds to the outside environment.

Christof Koch, from The Quest for Consciousness

From Christof Koch’s 2005 J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture titled, “The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach.” (Also the name of his 2004 book.) These clips illustrate, in Koch’s words:

“Conscious perception is, in a sense, a con job of the brain. It [our sense of perception] suggests there’s a stable world out there, and there’s a very simple relationship between what’s out there in the world and what’s inside our head. But in fact it’s a very complicated relationship. It’s actively constructed by our brain. We’re now beginning to understand that what I see in my head is actually constructed by my head, by my neurons.”This is called an afterimage, a negative afterimage … It belies the simple notion there’s a one-to-one relationship between the outside world and my inner mental experiences. In this case … the colors fade. So it depends not only on what’s out there, it depends on what’s the history? So clearly this naive, realistic view that there’s a world, there’s my head and this simple mapping, it can’t be true.”

Note that I have made edits and inserted comments in these excerpts to aid the online viewer’s experience. Used with permission of Christof Koch and with thanks to the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee.

Afterimage Effect

Visual Consciousness

Change Blindness


This demonstration is widely available from other sources. What is depicted here is a copy of the video made of the presented video, so the quality isn’t the best. But if you can attend your attention to the demonstration, you should be able to witness the effect.

Alfred Korzybski’s 1948 Demonstration

Compare Koch’s 2005 demonstrations with the following film made in 1948 (57 years earlier) of the formulator of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, demonstrating what he termed the process of abstracting. What can you discern about the effect Korzybski demonstrated and his explanation vs those half-a-century later of Hawkins, Ramachandran, and Koch?