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Know Thyself: Easier Said Than Done

Why are we so bad at knowing — in this case remembering — what passes through our own minds?

An interesting article in the NYT Sunday Book Review:

The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in “Perplexities of Consciousness,” contends that our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory. Despite what we believe about our powers of introspection, the reality is that we know awfully little about what our conscious experience amounts to. Even when reporting current experience, we make divergent, confused and even contradictory claims about what it’s like to be on the inside.

…Schwitzgebel argues that brain differences, even if they exist, are probably beside the point. For there is plenty of evidence that people will give different interpretations of the very same events inside their heads.

…He begins with the curious case of color in dreams. When people today are asked whether they regularly dream in color, most say they do. But it was not always so. Back in the 1950s most said they dreamed in black and white. Presumably it can hardly be true that our grandparents had different brains that systematically left out the color we put in today. So this must be a matter of interpretation. Yet why such freedom about assigning color? Well, try this for an answer. Suppose that, not knowing quite what dreams are like, we tend to assume they must be like photographs or movies — pictures in the head. Then, when asked whether we dream in color we reach for the most readily available pictorial analogy. Understandably, 60 years ago this might have been black-and-white movies, while for most of us today it is the color version. But, here’s the thing: Neither analogy is necessarily the “right” one. Dreams don’t have to be pictures of any kind at all. They could be simply thoughts — and thoughts, even thoughts about color, are neither colored nor non-colored in themselves.

…This could all be true. We often do have trouble telling what’s going on inside our minds. But still I can’t say this is always because of feeble introspection. I suspect the real problem may be not that we know too little about our mental states but that we know too much. We are asked to say “what it’s like” — to dream, to imagine, to feel — as if there ought to be a simple answer: colored or not, single or double, in the head or in the heart. But, when it comes to it, the rich totality of our experience will not fit the Procrustean bed that philosophy, and everyday discourse also, tries to impose on it.

Continue Reading in the NYT

Nicholas Humphrey is school professor emeritus of psychology at the London School of Economics. His most recent book is “Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness.”

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