Monday, September 18, 2006

Are Images in Subjective Space?

I've interviewed a number of people about their imagery. Some I've asked to form images as we speak; others I've had wear random beepers during their normal daily activity, and they're reported having imagery at the "sampled" moments when the beep goes off. Interestingly, some people report that their images have a spatial location -- typically near their foreheads or some small distance directly in front of their foreheads (up to a couple feet) -- while others deny that their images are located in subjective space in this way: Neither in their heads, nor in front of their heads, nor anywhere else.

Now I wonder: Are these differing reports to be trusted? Do some people experience their imagery as located in subjective space, while others do not? Or is one or the other, or both, of the groups confused in some way?

Although I'm not especially optimistic about definitively answering that question, here's at least one thought about how, in principle, it might be testable. Maybe imagery interacts to some extent with vision. If you imagine something in some particular region of space you might be worse (or better) at seeing external objects in that region. If so, then maybe people whose imagery is subjectively located will have enhanced or diminished performance in perceptual tasks in regions of space associated with their imagery, while they are maintaining an image, compared to regions of space outside their usual imagery field; and not so for those who report imagery as having no subjective location.


Pete Mandik said...

Eric, I wonder if the following is relevant. I guess Kant said something in Sec. 13 of the Prolegomena along the lines of:

The only way to conceive of mirror-asymetric objects as distinct from their mirror-counterparts (e.g. a left shoe from a right shoe) is to conceive of them in an subjective space.

If something like this Kantian thesis is correct, then this suggests something like a test to answer this post's titular question: Find out if the person imagining a mirror-asymetric object.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting suggestion, Pete -- though I'm inclined to think it wouldn't be decisive.

Why not? I just have a hunch that those who think images can be unlocated in subjective space will think of various plausible ways to get around it. For example, one part of the image might, in some way (but without implying that the image is positioned relative to the self), be marked as "right"; or just as an image can be in some sense thought of or labeled as "my sister" as opposed to, say, her identical twin, so also it might be thought of or labeled as a right shoe.

Your suggestion does, however, suggest a way of probing more deeply into introspective reports of non-subjectively located imagery: Ask on the basis of what does the observer think that one part of the image is the right and the other the left. I'm not sure this question will get very trustworthy answers, but it would be interesting to hear what people say!

Pete Mandik said...

Eric, regarding the lableing suggestion, I'm not sure what it amounts to.

One thing it might amount to is some kind of linguistic or non-imagistic element to the mental representation in question. Insofar as that is in play, then we aren't dealing with imagery anymore.

Another thing the labels might be is an attempt to introduce an allocentric frame of reference by e.g. conceiving as the right glove as the one with its thumb the closest to the door. The problem with this latter suggestion, though, is that the glove plus whatever other objects are being used to compose the reference frame may themselves be considered parts of a complex object for which the question again arises of how to distinguish it from its mirror-counterpart.

Anonymous said...

I was just looking around at the philosophy page at UCR (I graduated back in 2003). I was a history major and minored in philosophy. I remember being really confused in class. Not really on the material, but on the approach that people took.

I was confused how people thought of themselves as a body first. A body that has thoughts and sees things and that that vision was accompanied by sights and sounds that appear in some region of their "minds eye" or whatever. This seems weird to me.

I tend to identify myself as the entire experience. The sights, sounds, etc. I mean, theoretically you cold hook my brain up to a computer to produce the same electric signals that would trigger the same experiences. So technically the only thing I can be sure of is that I am experiencing things. So when others say I am a being that is looking and at a tv and hearing sounds while tasting my dinner. I would say that I am the experience as a whole. I am the taste, the sights, and the sounds. There is no spot with "me" that is having these things because it is what I am.

Yeah, I may seem weird, but to me it's everyone else that seems silly.

Jim P said...

I'm not sure if you are already familiar with him, but you may want to look into Sartre's theory of images, particularly that found in The Imaginary. Although unscientific, his subjective account of his own phenomenology may prove interesting to you.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comments, folks!

Pete: I'm inclined to agree with your point about the allocentric frame of reference. Regarding whether having linguistic components in imagery, or aspects of the meaning of the image that are not themselves fully specified by the pictorial aspect of the image itself -- well, that's been a hot issue since Wittgenstein! I'm not sure I'd take the same stand on it that seems to be implicit in your comments.

Anonymous: Always good to hear from a former UCR student! I confess, I'm probably one of those "body first" people. And I disagree with the view that we know better what our experiences are than what our physical environment is. If you're interested in more of my take on that, check out "The Unreliability of Naive Introspection" (in draft), which you can link to from The Splintered Mind front page or from my home page.

And finally Jim: I haven't yet read the Sartre, I confess. Thanks for the tip!

Quirinius_Quine said...

Perhaps the problem is that different people understand the phrase "subjective space" differently. For my part, if I imagine (form a visual image of) a tree, it looks to be in front of me. That is, I don't see it, from a first person perspective, as being on the side of me or behind my head. Yet in spite of its being in front of me, it doesn't look at all "transparent"; I don't "see through it" to the things in my normal perceptual field, and neither are they obscured by the image. They both look "solid" in their own way, despite the "faintness" of the image. Neither seems to affect the other. In this sense, then, they seem to be in seperate spaces, both of which seem to be "in front" of my viewpoint. Does any of that make sense to you? I can't speak for others, but that's how it seems to me (at least, I can't think of any way to describe it more naturally). Whether this counts as a "subjective space" I'm not sure.

Alejandro said...

I am not very sure of how to describe my images, but in a way it seems to me they are sometimes in a subjective space (located where your subjects said, close to my forehead) and sometimes not. The difference is whether I am imagining myself to see something, e.g. a tree, or trying to imagine the tree just by itself. Does this make sense?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Quirinius and Alejandro, thanks for your comments! Those are both interesting and plausible observations. Quirinius, what you say especially seems to resonate with my own experience.

It's interesting how difficult and unexplored such territory is!