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Your brain
… to explore the nature of the conscious mind.

You are the teacher, and you’ve got a classroom full of reasonably well behaved students.

Tell them: “I want you to close your eyes, and I’m going to ask you a question. …

Quietly work out the answer to the question and keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them…. Do not say the answer to your question out loud … and keep your eyes closed.”

When they have their eyes closed, say: “in your apartment or home …. where you live … how many windows are there? Keep your eyes closed.”

Now, watch them as they work this out. You will be able to tell when most or all of them know the answer.

When you think they have all worked it out, have them open their eyes, and ask a few of them, one at a time, what the number is.

After you’ve done that, ask them how they know. Ask a couple of different people. It may be a little tricky to get them to explain this properly, but I can tell you the answer to the question that any honest participant in this experiment will give:

What happens is, you visit, in your mind, every room in your house …. or in some cases look at the house from the outside, though that is rare … and count the windows.

There is not a database of things like “how many windows in house … dates I ate in X restaurant … etc.” There is rather a remembered context, a set of memories linked together, that allow an individual to re-experience being somewhere that is familiar. And count the windows. Or the closets. Or whatever.

Windows almost always work. People may get numbers of closets or total number of dresser drawers, etc. wrong. But even so, they will go there to count them.

This, perhaps in a trivial way, perhaps not, tells us something about consciousness and memory. Depending on the class you are teaching, this can be a good staring point.

Comments

  1. #1 barney
    May 7, 2008

    I do this to remember how many faculty there are in my department (floor-by-floor office count). Fortunately it’s a small department so I don’t have to keep my eyes closed for too long. Don’t ask why I need to know this or why I can’t remember the number 16.

  2. #2 Elizabeth
    May 7, 2008

    This is how I know what’s in my purse.

  3. #3 Michael Anes
    May 7, 2008

    There is a whole literature on mental imagery, and this is a prime example of our imaging ability.

    This exercise in particular doesn’t rely on the more visual/sensory components of mental imagery, but instead on a spatial/manipulative component.

    Stephen Kosslyn is the dean of a lot of this research, and has an approachable writing style (and is super prolific)…

    http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~kwn/

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    May 7, 2008

    I like that this covers more than just visual memory. As I move around my internal house, I’m remembering opening or closing windows (or messing with curtains), not looking at them. I couldn’t count them from the outside by memory if I tried.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    May 7, 2008

    Stephanie: The people who do it from the outside do that for a very specific reason. Like, they recently changed all the screens or something. It is rare, but it always makes sense.

    Michael: It was Stephen Kosslyn who taught me this trick, as a matter of fact. This is indeed his bailiwick.

  6. #6 Monado, FCD
    May 7, 2008

    Staring point or starting point? Nice pun, if the former.

  7. #7 Juuro
    May 8, 2008

    Actually, I do it from the outside just because I am lazy. I started walking from room to room, got tired with the inefficiency of the process, and flashed to four vantage points outside the house. Much more convenient, and I even see the workshop window that his hidden behind a cupboard.

  8. #8 Virgil Samms
    May 8, 2008

    Is this the definition of “consciousness” you promised us?

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    May 8, 2008

    Virgil,

    Where did I promise you a definition of consciousness? You demanded one, and have been a bit of an ass about it. But you are forgetting my “don’t tell me what to blog rule” …

    Furthermore, where did I say that this post is such a definition?

    Sure, we can talk about “defining consciousness.” This little trick can be part of that discussion. But the telepathy part, no, I don’t think that’s going to work as a means of conversation.