This morning, I found myself reveling in the representational capacity of brains.
Here’s an illustration: Sometimes I misplace an item such as my keys and I can’t find them while physically walking around my house. Sometimes, frustrated, I pause my physical search. I sit down and close my eyes. Using only images, sounds and memories embedded in neural pathways in my head, I “see” that I had my keys when I last walked into my house. I “play” a series of short “videos” and “images” in my head reminding myself where I walked and what I touched. I run through the logic that I could NOT have left them in certain places, because I didn’t go to those parts of the house, seeing images of them as I run through this logic? Then, perhaps, I “see” myself closing my car trunk while holding my briefcase. I’m now wondering–did I put the keys on top of the car for a second while closing the trunk? I go outside and there are the keys on top of the car.
My mind contained detailed representations of my home and car, as well as episodic memories that, while imperfect, is often good enough. My neural pathways contain a virtual, somewhat explorable, world inside of my head. Although it is not perfect in all of its details, it is quite functional. It’s a capability we use every day, drawing on the brain’s extraordinary power to represent the world around us, allowing us to perform virtual manipulations of objects, “searching” our house while sitting down with our eyes closed. What type of magic is this that a 3 pound living organ can do this and so much more? How is it even possible that a system like this can spout up and train itself over a lifetime without a “person in the brain” to guide the process? And how is it possible that we experience consciousness on top of this amazing process?
This is but one reason for my love of cognitive science. It’s not my profession, but it is one of my passions to better understand this process that we so often take for granted.