Consciousness Not a Copy of Experience

Although the metaphor of the blank mind had been used in the writings ascribed to Aristotle, it is really only since John Locke thought of the mind as a tabula rasa in the seventeenth century that we have emphasized this recording aspect of consciousness, and thus see it crowded with memories that can be read over again in introspection. If Locke had lived in our time, he would have used the metaphor of a camera rather than a slate. But the idea is the same. And most people would protest emphatically that the chief function of consciousness is to store up experience, to copy it as a camera does, so that it can be reflected upon at some future time.

So it seems. But consider the following problems: Does the door of your room open from the right or the left? Which is your second longest finger? At a stoplight, is it the red or the green that is on top? How many teeth do you see when brushing your teeth? What letters are associated with what numbers on a telephone dial? If you are in a familiar room, without turning around, write down all the items on the wall just behind you, and then look.

I think you will be surprised how little you can retrospect in consciousness on the supposed images you have stored from so much previous attentive experience. If the familiar door suddenly opened the other way, if another finger suddenly grew longer, if the red light were differently placed, or you had an extra tooth, or the telephone were made differently, or a new window latch had been put on the window behind you, you would know it immediately, showing that you all along ‘knew’, but not consciously so. Familiar to psychologists, this is the distinction between recognition and recall. What you can consciously recall is a thimbleful to the huge oceans of your actual knowledge.

Experiments of this sort demonstrate that conscious memory is not a storing up of sensory images, as is sometimes thought. Only if you have at some time consciously noticed your finger lengths or your door, have at some time counted your teeth, though you have observed these things countless times, can you remember. Unless you have particularly noted what is on the wall or recently cleaned or painted it, you will be surprised at what you have left out. And introspect upon the matter. Did you not in each of these instances ask what must be there? Starting with ideas and reasoning, rather than with any image? Conscious retrospection is not the retrieval of images, but the retrieval of what you have been conscious of before,5 and the reworking of these elements into rational or plausible patterns.

Let us demonstrate this in another way. Think, if you will, of when you entered the room you are now in and when you picked up this book. Introspect upon it and then ask the question: are the images of which you have copies the actual sensory fields as you came in and sat down and began reading? Don’t you have an image of yourself coming through one of the doors, perhaps even a bird’s-eye view of one of the entrances, and then perhaps vaguely see yourself sitting down and picking up the book? Things which you have never experienced except in this introspection! And can you retrieve the sound fields around the event? Or the cutaneous sensations as you sat, took the pressure off your feet, and opened this book? Of course, if you go on with your thinking you can also rearrange your imaginal retrospection such that you do indeed ‘see’ entering the room just as it might have been; and ‘hear’ the sound of the chair and the book opening, and ‘feel’ the skin sensations. But I suggest that this has a large element of created imagery ? what we shall call narratizing a little later ? of what the experience should be like, rather than what it actually was like.

Or introspect on when you last went swimming: I suspect you have an image of a seashore, lake, or pool which is largely a retrospection, but when it comes to yourself swimming, lo! Like Nijinsky in his dance, you are seeing yourself swim, something that you have never observed at all! There is precious little of the actual sensations of swimming, the particular waterline across your face, the feel of the water against your skin, or to what extent your eyes were underwater as you turned your head to breathe.6 Similarly, if you think of the last time you slept out of doors, went skating, or ? if all else fails ? did something that you regretted in public, you tend not to see, hear, or feel things as you actually experienced them, but rather to re-create them in objective terms, seeing yourself in the setting as if you were somebody else. Looking back into memory, then, is a great deal invention, seeing yourself as others see you. Memory is the medium of the must-have-been. Though I have no doubt that in any of these instances you could by inference invent a subjective view of the experience, even with the conviction that it was the actual memory.

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