Excerpts from “The Little Man In the Brain”

   During a recent television show entitled “Inside Information,” neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego made some interesting points about how we see. He said that if you ask the man in the street how vision works, he will say there is an image on the retina of the eye. The optic nerve faithfully transmits this image to a screen in the brain, in what we call the visual cortex. And that image is what you see.
   Ramachandran pointed out that this explanation leads to a logical fallacy. If you create an image inside the head, then you need another person in the head—a little man in the brain—who looks at that image. Then you have to postulate an even smaller person inside his head to explain how he sees, and so on, ad infinitum. This is obvious nonsense, and Ramachandran said that inside the brain there really is no replica of the external world. Rather, there is an abstract, symbolic description of that world. Brain scientists are like cryptographers trying to crack the code the brain uses in perceiving its environment. . . . 
 One idea is that consciousness may arise at the level where the brain organizes information from separate systems, like those for shape, color, and motion, and integrates it into one unified gestalt. One problem with this proposal: Does such unification actually occur? To write down a lot of information you need many letters, and if you code the information in patterns of nerve impulses, you need a lot of neurons to store it. No matter how much you try to compress it by careful coding, it remains spread out and not truly unified. The idea of a unified “gestalt” simply takes us back to the original little man who looks at the information and is conscious of it.
   The basic fallacy of the little man in the brain argument is that it assumes implicitly that consciousness can be understood in physical terms. One tries to explain consciousness by describing a machine that creates a certain display of information. Then one recognizes that the mere presence of displayed information fails to account for consciousness of that information. Then one proposes another mechanism to interpret the information and finally generate consciousness. When that attempt also fails, one takes refuge in the overwhelming complexity of the brain and says that a consciousness-producing mechanism must be hidden in there somewhere. All we have to do is find it. . . .

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Copyright © 2004 by Richard L. Thompson