CEPA eprint 1714 (HVF-124)

The Need of Perception for the Perception of Needs

Foerster H. von (1989) The Need of Perception for the Perception of Needs. LEONARDO 22(2): 223–226. Available at http://cepa.info/1714
Table of Contents
The author uses physiological, psychological and clinical examples to place the aesthetic problem of architecture within an ethical context. Drawing on a clinical report and an experiment in perception, he argues that perception consists largely of invention on the part of the perceiver. He disputes the possibility of an objective reality, linking the popular belief in objectivity to a desire to avoid responsibility. He outlines the opposition between objectivity and ethics and, likewise, between ‘monologic’ and ‘dialogic’. His discussion of the distinction be-tween denotation and connotation leads to conclusions concerning the role of ethics in architecture.
You don’t know how much you have to give until you start trying to give.R. Buckminster Fuller
A basic concern in architecture must always be the fundamental needs and desires of the people for whom architects create the perceptual spaces. In this paper I shall consider the first need, namely, the need for perceiving the needs of the people, with the underlying theme “The need of perception for the perception of needs and desires.” I shall develop this theme in three movements. First, I shall report on the neurophysiological evidence that indicates that per-ception is much closer to an act of creation, as in con-ception, than to a passive state of affairs, as in re-ception. Second, from this perspective it will become apparent that the popular claim for the existence of an ‘objective reality’ is fallacious, and popular only because ‘objectivity’ helps to obscure responsibility. Finally, I hope to show that, through her creations, an architect’s dialogue with the people is equally guided by principles of aesthetics as by those of ethics. Most likely, architects know all that already in their own language. But I may be able to explain in my language things they did not know that they knew: instead of a ritual we shall have change.
I shall develop my first movement around the theme “The world as we perceive it is our invention.” I shall do this again in three steps: first by giving a clinical report, second by describing an experiment and finally by interpreting these observations neurophysiologically.
The history of scotoma goes back to World War I and is about patients with brain injuries caused by high-velocity projectiles that had lodged in but passed through the head. These well-localized occipital lesions would heal relatively fast without the patients’ awareness of any loss in vision or other sensory faculties. However, long after these patients had been dismissed from the hospital, say, after 2 or 3 months, motor dysfunctions in the patients would become apparent, e.g. a loss of control of arm or leg movements of one side or the other, or other general losses in the control of posture and locomotion.
Clinical tests, however, at first gave no clues as to the cause of these dysfunctions, until an observant young medic offered one of these patients a cigarette by holding a pack in front of his eyes. Receiving no response, he held the package high over his own head, and the patient responded at once. A test for vision was initiated, and indeed a substantial loss of central vision (‘scotoma’) was observed in this and most other patients with similar injuries.
Figure 1, a typical case, shows the correlation between the injury and the extent of the loss of central vision [Note 1] . Here only a thin ring of peripheral vision and a small spot of central vision remain intact, sufficient to keep the patient unaware of his enormously magnified ‘blind spot’ (see Fig. 2), but insufficient to allow him to maintain visual control of purposeful movements of body and limbs.
Figure 1: This illustration is taken from from Hans-Lukas Teuber’s work “Neuere Betrachtungen fiber Sehstrahlung and Sehrinde” (see Ref. [Note 1] ; reproduced by permission). He explored not only the correspondence between lesions in the optic tract and specific losses in the visual field, but also the peculiar perceptual changes in the remaining visual faculties. Here is an example of a substantial loss in the visual field; the remaining vision is sufficient to make the patient unaware of his partial blindness.
Figure 2: The reader should hold this with her right hand, close her left eye and fixate the asterisk with her right eye. If she moves the figure slowly back and forth along the line of vision to an appropriate distance (about 12 to 14 in), the round black spot will disappear. If the asterisk is kept well focussed, the spot should remain invisible even if the figure is slowly moved parallel to its plane.
What I wish to stress with both of these cases (scotoma and the blind spot) is the peculiar logic associated with perception, or rather with the absence of perception. It is not the logic of negation, for here two ‘noes’ do not make a ‘yes’. Neither in the pathological case of scotoma, nor in the physiologically normal blind spot, do we perceive the absence of perception in the form of, say, a black, gray or white blotch. Nothing of that sort is seen. In fact, we do not see that we do not see! Thus we may not see that we do not see the needs and desires of the people we wish to serve, and happily address ourselves to what we think are their needs and desires.
How to escape this dilemma? One successful therapy in scotoma cases is to blindfold the patients until they succeed in ‘uncoupling’ themselves from nonexistent clues regarding posture and movement. They then can regain control over their motor systems by shifting their ‘attention’ to fully operational sensory channels that give direct postural clues from proprioceptive receptors embedded in muscles and joints. In a few weeks they learn to rely on their proprioceptors only, and when the blindfolds are removed they have no difficulties correlating their motoric competence with their few visual clues.
The congenitally blind person constructs the topology and topography of her spaces by movement and touch. Since she cannot and never could see, walls are transparent – obstructions only for movements; she walks around them to fetch things of which she never lost ‘sight’.
I shall now turn to the description of an experiment in audition that was first conceived and conducted by John Lilly (known for his work with dolphins), which represents, in a sense, an auditory complement to the clinical cases in vision described above.
A single word is spoken once into a tape recorder, and then the tape is smoothly spliced (without click) into a loop. Then the word is played back repetitively at rather high volume. After 1 or 2 minutes of listening (from 50 to 150 repetitions) , the word, which has been clearly perceived so far, abruptly changes into another meaningful and clearly perceived word: an ‘alternate’. After 10 to 30 repetitions of this first alternate, a sudden switch to a second alternate is perceived, and so on [Note 2] . The following is a small selection of the 758 alternates reported from a population of about 300 subjects who were exposed to a repetitive playback of the single word ‘cogitate’:
agitate; annotate; arbitrate; artistry; back and forth; brevity; cas d’etat; candidate; can’t you see; Cape Cod you say; card estate; cardio tape; car district; catch a tape; cavitate; cha cha che; cogitate; computate; conjugate; conscious state; counter tape; count to ten; count to three; count yer tape; cut the state; entity; fantasy; god to take; god you say; got a date; got your pay; got your tape; gratitude; gravity; guard the tit; gurgitate; had to take; kinds of tape; majesty; marmalade; tragedy.
Naive psychologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘illusion’. If they were consistent, hearing ‘cogitate’, the word replayed by the recorder, would be an illusion as well.
I could go on and on with examples of such instances in which we see or hear what is not ‘there’, or in which we do not see or hear what is supposedly ‘there’ [Note 3] . What these examples demonstrate is that my nervous system does not, indeed, cannot, tell me what is ‘out there’, not because of mechanical but because of logico-semantical reasons. My nervous system cannot tell me anything because it is ‘me’: I am the activity of my nervous system; all my nervous system talks about is its own state of sensory-motor activity.
This somewhat enigmatic (or trivial?) statement may become clear (or significant?) if one realizes that the various receptor cells that are distributed over the surface of our bodies, such as the cones and rods of the retina, the hairy cells in the inner ear, the receptors for taste and smell and those for touch, report only the magnitude (quantity) of a stimulus, not its quality.
Figure 3 shows the form of electrical charges on their way from peripheral sensors to nerves in deeper regions of the brain. In this particular case, measurements have been made with a microprobe at one point along the delicate nerve fiber coming from a subcutaneous touch receptor that has been stimulated with increasing pressure. The response of this, and likewise of any other kind of receptor cell, is a train of electric volleys whose frequency increases with stimulus intensity. However, no clues whatsoever as to the physical nature of the stimulating agent are encoded in these signals. Encoded is only ‘so much at this point of my body (the locus of the receptor) ‘ but not ‘what’.
Figure 3: Three examples of periodic discharges from a touch receptor under con-tinuous stimulation, the low frequency corresponding to a weak stimulus and the high frequency to a strong stimulus. The magnitude of the discharge is everywhere the same; it is the pulse frequency that represents the stimulus intensity, but intensity only, not its quality (here, e.g. ‘cutaneous pressure’ ).
Since primary sensations are, so to say, nothing but a uniform ‘gray’, the colorful and glorious variety we experience as the world is created by computations in the nervous system. As we understand it today, these computations, i.e. the modifications of signals by signals, take place at the more than one trillion junctions (synapses) of nerve cells with nerve cells (Fig. 4) [Note 4] . It is here that the quantities of sensation are transformed into the qualities of perception, where each of us creates the world as he or she perceives it. This should be obvious, for ‘out there’ there is no light and no color, just electromagnetic waves; ‘out there’ there is no sound and no music, just periodic variations of air pressure; ‘out there’ there is no heat and no cold, just molecules moving faster or slower; and finally, for sure, ‘out there’ there is no pain. Hence, light and color, sound and music, heat and cold, are created ‘in here’, within our skin, by operations in the nervous system.
Figure 4: This illustration of a small portion of a human retina is taken from Polyak’s book on the visual system of vertebrates [Note 4] . The actual size of this small section (showing only 100 elements of a total of 500 million) of the retinal computer com-plex is considerably smaller than the period ending this sentence. Here certain shapes, their movements and colors (see Maturana [Note 3] ) are computed, essentially in layers labelled 5 and 7, where cells of various types meet at synapses.
Thus, the biblical metaphor “Let there be light, and there was light” could be translated “Let there be electromagnetic waves, and there were electromagnetic waves.” However, this paraphrase does not sound right at all; in fact, it sounds so bad that for purely aesthetic reasons it must be wrong. From the foregoing it is clear what indeed took place in this first act of creation. God said, “Let there be vision!” and there was light.
I hope that with these observations I have sufficiently illuminated a new pathway to see afresh an ancient piece of knowledge, namely, that autonomy and self-determination are the crucial attributes of living things. There are, of course, those who say that this is not so, and that they can force any living organism to do what they want it to do! But, of course, they cannot if we will not: there is power only where there is submission. Power is the effect, submission is the cause [Note 5] . Since these insights can be perceived as political dynamite, there are many at work at-tempting to defuse these conceptual bombs. One of these attempts is to stipulate objectivity: “There is one and only one Reality! and this Reality is independent of the observer.” The popularity of this doctrine is easy to understand. Those who embrace this doctrine need not worry about their responsibilities. They cannot be blamed for anything, for they are only transducers, instruments through which reality expresses itself. For them, whatever is said is purely denotative: push a button, and the bell rings. Who would blame the bell? It is the same for some behaviorists who have their minds framed by this frame of mind: step on the tail of a cat, and out comes ‘meow’. Who could blame the cat?
If I paraphrase my earlier formulation of ‘objectivity’, the shallowness of this claim will become even more apparent: “The properties of the observer shall not enter the description of her observations.” But how would it be possible to make a description in the first place if the observer did not have properties that allowed her to generate such descriptions? Hence, I submit in all modesty that the claim for objectivity is nonsense!
One may try to rectify this state of affairs by negating objectivity and proclaiming subjectivity to be the true philosophy. But if a nonsensical proposition is negated, the result is again a nonsensical proposition. The complement to objectivity is not subjectivity. The complement to objectivity is ethics. Ethics stipulates at least one other being whose autonomy is its essential attribute.
With this step we have left the ‘mono- logic’ of objectivity, which can speak monologue only where the essential condition for a sentence to make sense is that it be either true or else false. We have entered the realm of dialogue with its extended logic: ‘dialogic’. Here we do not ask whether a proposition is true or false. These are the concern of objectivity. Here we ask: what is the intent of a proposition? Monologic does not know of questions, for questions are neither true nor false. Questions are part of dialogic, they are created by intent. Since intent is an internal state of the speaker, intent cannot be pointed at, it cannot be denoted. In dialogue, language takes up its connotative function, that is, an utterance invites interpreta-tion. In other words, an utterance invites the listener to create an intent for himself. The question of whether the intent so created is similar or equivalent to the primary intent that generated the utterance is moot, for the nervous system of the speaker is that of the speaker and not of the listener, and vice versa. Intent is internal to each; it is only utterances that can be witnessed, and we all know the reliability of a witness.
For reasons that will be apparent in a moment, I have made use of the linguistic distinction between denotation and connotation. I would like to add a few more words to clarify further. Denotation is monologic, and carries with it the notion of commitment. Connotation is dialogic, and carries with it the notion of responsibility. Hence, those who talk of commitments are mute when asked about their responsibilities. The denotative function of language projects it into a trivial dimension in which language appears simply as a coding device:
step on tail → ‘meow’,
or ‘meow’ means, signifies, indicates, stands for, or is equivalent to something else, namely, a step on the tail. In this frame of mind it is believed that language can be taught by ‘ostensive definitions’, that is, by pointing at things while uttering their name.
Alas, this does not work, as I was told by Margaret Mead, who once wished to add another language to her repertoire quickly by pointing at things and listening to what the people would call them. To her surprise, no matter what she pointed at, she got the same three-syllable reply. At first she thought this to be a very primitive language, but soon she learned that these three syllables meant ‘pointing with one’s finger’.
Parents suffer a similar delusion, and share it with Pavlov, when they think that learning a language is like establishing a conditioned reflex, with pointing at things as the conditioning stimulus. Pavlov’s well-known experiments showed that after a series of training sessions, in which the exposure to food would precede the ringing of a bell, his dogs would salivate when his assistant was ringing a bell. Jerzy Konorski, a Polish experimental psychologist, repeated Pavlov’s experiments [Note 6] , but with one exception. Without the knowledge of his assistant he removed the clapper from the bell. To the surprise of all, when the assistant was wagging the mute bell, the dog did salivate. This shows that the sound of the bell was a stimulus for Pavlov, but not for the dog. Children discover this pattern of thought in the world of adults early on, and, as B. F. Skinner would say, reinforce this belief in their parents, with Skinner himself being a splendid parental example [Note 7] .
There is not only the distinction between denotation and connotation within language, there are distinctions of domain as well. Consider, for instance, the following sentence: “There is food 300 feet due west.” This is a declarative sentence with a qualifying clause. As von Frisch showed [Note 8] , and he won the Nobel Prize for this, this sentence can be translated into Bee, the language of the honeybee. Bees pronounce this sentence by movements, the ‘wiggle dance’, rather than by sounds. Another bee following these movements would leave the hive and gather food 300 feet due west. But the other statement, “This is a declarative statement with a qualifying clause,” cannot be translated into Bee, for this is language upon language, a language that is self-referential, an ‘S- language’. In order to be able to speak S-language one needs a nervous system that closes on itself, for one has to be able to talk about one’s talking.
Since bees cannot speak S-language, bees do not have architecture. Bees cannot sit down and discuss whether they would like to continue making hexagonal honeycombs, or should they change to almost spherical pentagon-dodecahedra. As long as they are bees, they have to do the hexagons. Therefore, we have to leave architecture to another species that has a nervous system that closes on itself: architecture is an S-language.
Within this frame, architecture is connotative, appealing to the people who enter and experience architectural spaces, to their ideas, desires and needs, may they be sacred, profane, commercial or private. It is connotation again when architects meta-phorically speak of ‘architectural statements’, statements that invite interpretation. The creative architectural space begets new sights, new insights, new choices: it is a catalyst for cognitions. It suggests an ethical imperative that applies not only to architects, but to anyone who acts!
“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.” Aesthetics is a means for an ethical end, and, likewise, ethics a means for an aesthetic end: “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same” [Note 9] .
I shall conclude with a story that is 2,500 years old. Chuang Tse, the great master of Tao, used to travel a great deal. During one of his journeys he came upon a remote inn, located in a charming valley, and he decided to stay there for a few days. Soon he learned that the innkeeper had two wives, one beautiful, the other one ugly, and also that he loved the ugly one but not the beautiful one. One day Chuang Tse met the innkeeper and asked him, “You have two wives, one beautiful, the other one ugly. Strangely, you love the ugly one and not the other. How can this be?” The innkeeper replied: “Sir, this is not strange at all. The beautiful one knows of her beauty, and one does not see her beauty. The ugly one knows of her ugliness, and one does not see her ugliness.”
The illustration is from H. L. Teuber, “Neuere Betrachtungen fiber Sehstrahlung und Sehrinde,” in This Visuelle System, R. Jung and H. Korn-huber, eds. (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1961) pp. 256-274.
From personal communication with Margaret Naeser and John Lilly. For related information see M. A. Naeser and J. C. Lilly, “The Repeating Word Effect: Phonetic Analysis of Reported Alternates,” Journal of Speech and Hearing Research (1971).
H. Von Foerster, “On Constructing a Reality,” in Environmental Design Research, Vol. 2, W. F. E. Preiser, ed. (Stroudsbury: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1973) pp. 35-46; and H. R. Maturana, “A Biological Theory of Relativistic Colour Coding in the Primate Retina,” Arch. Biologia y Medicina Exper., Suppl. No. 1 (Santiago: Soc. Biologia de Chile, Universidad de Chile, 1968).
The illustration is Fig. 146 in Stephen Polyak, Vertebrate Visual System, Heinreich Kluver, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). Repro-duced here by permission.
H. R. Maturana, personal communication with the author.
J. Konorski, “The Role of Central Factors in Differentiation,” in Information Processing in the Nervous System, R. W. Gerard and J. W. Duyff, eds. (Amsterdam: Excerpta Medica Foundation, 1962) pp. 318-329.
B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Knopf, 1971).
K. von Frisch, Dance Language and Orientation of Bees, L. E. Chadwick, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967).
L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York: The Humanities Press, 1961) Proposition 6.421.
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