Thursday, 24 June 2010

Eye, Borg

It's been a good day for this sort of thing; shortly after my last post I came across this blog post via Gizmodo. It describes the curious case of Neil, who cannot see colour but who has learned to hear it, via a camera that encodes colours as sounds.

Two things of note:

1. It's another wonderful example of the point I was making earlier - it's information, not anatomy, that matters. Perception is an act of discrimination - to the extent that you can distinguish between two things, you've succeeded. The only difference medium and anatomy make are in the kinds of discriminations they are best suited to allow; what they afford, in fact. We use vision to navigate a cluttered environment and interact with objects; bats use sound just as well, and are equipped to perceive the required information from sound (as are killer whales; for an excellent account of their abilities in surprisingly ecological terms, I recommend the ever-excellent Quirks & Quarks episode).

2. It's a nice example of the kind of embodied cognition Andy Clark talks about. I have a few beefs with Clark, mostly because he's incapable of giving up mental representations (although he does try his hardest to make them as useful as possible) - but I do like much of his thinking in this area. He has several books on embodied cognition; Being There talks about us offloading cognition onto the world, and Natural Born Cyborgs goes the other way, talking about enhancing our 'natural' abilities by incorporating technology. Neil is an example of the latter - he has been enhanced by being given useful auditory access to colour. Clark isn't perfect, but his books make good reading and I recommend them heartily.

Oh, and the brain probably  rewired itself too.

Clark, A (1998). Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again. MIT Press.

Clark, A. (2003). Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford University Press.

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