Harry Potter, Toilets, and The Illusion of Simplicity

I have been told that this toilet will spark a thought revolution. Or a profound realization of ignorance.

“What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

-J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

FINALLY! A conclusion! I know what this course is about!

Harry Potter.

That is the conclusion JP and I came to after a very confusing lecture that started with a discussion of toilets.

Yes toilets.

My homework?

I have been told that this toilet will spark a thought revolution. Or a profound realization of ignorance.

I have been told that this toilet will spark a thought revolution. Or a profound realization of ignorance.

Go home, sit in front of my toilet and figure out how it works. Sounds simple right? I’m sure a plumber could rhyme it off fairly easily, and how many times in my life have I used one. But most of us were stumped by the question of what the ball is for exactly, I fortunately went through that thought experiment at the age of about 7. How does the water get into the bowl again though? What happens to the water that was in the toilet?

I couldn’t resist. At this point I told JP “you go into the Chamber of Secrets.”

Towards the end of the class we started talking about how prediction without knowledge or something like that is stupidity- the term stupid was translated to its Latin term stupor – to completely stun. Purpose of “stupify” is to stun.

Coincidence? I think not.

So now we have at least one semi-serious conclusion that was induced by one very strange homework assignment.

Let’s go back to the toilet assignment though.

The idea behind it was that a toilet is a very simple thing, how it works isn’t complicated. Miffed by my apparent lack of understanding of such a simple product, I decided to Google it. According to Wikipedia, some sort of drainage (i.e. not a pot or hole that had to be emptied) toilet like system has been around since about the 31st century B.C. I had known about John Harrington installing one for Queen Elizabeth I thanks to my enjoyment of historical fiction, but what I didn’t know, was that although this was the first recorded “flush” toilet, has been commonly credited to a man by the name of Thomas Crapper. Just sit with that for a second and chuckle. In fact, the first patent for a flush toilet was actually granted to a watchmaker, named Alexander Cummings in 1775. What this watchmaker was doing inventing toilets is unclear to me.

The big players in the history of the flushing toilet.  Left to right: Sir John Harrington, Queen Elizabeth I (image taken from leicestergalleries.com), Thomas Crapper, and Alexander Cummings.

The big players in the history of the flushing toilet. Left to right: Sir John Harrington, Queen Elizabeth I (image taken from leicestergalleries.com), Thomas Crapper, and Alexander Cummings.

The whole point of all this potty talk was to make us realize how much our perception relies on our knowledge. Which I had already accepted last week during our group discussions on how was acquire knowledge. This is the flow chart I came up with (please don’t judge my lack of artistic skills, I tried very hard):

A snap shot of my chicken scratch on how we accumulate knowledge

A snap shot of my chicken scratch on how we accumulate knowledge

So for me knowledge is a cycle. How do we acquire knowledge? Through our perceptual experiences, a perpetual tug of war between my internal and external worlds. Sitting in class trying to figure out how to explain something without using prior knowledge is next to impossible. Example? This is from our discussions last night:

“Dr Lamontagne: What does the ball do?

Student: it floats.

L: How do you know it floats?

S: Well it doesn’t sink.

L: Well what does that mean?

S: Well when the water rises so does the ball.

L: So you have to understand gravity then?”

This continued on a lot longer, but you get the point. How do we know what to expect when we see a puddle of water – how do we know the water won’t rush up at us? Experience has taught us that this will not be the case. Gravity means that water will always go down. For me perception without knowledge becomes progressively more impossible as you move through infancy. Yes at some point, be it the moment of birth or in the womb, there is a first moment where our sensory systems receive input. From that moment, we are consistently knitting together our experiences so that we can understand, which arguably is aimed at predicting, our world. Everything becomes connected to or interpreted in light of something else. Everything.

Which I suppose also depends on your understanding and definition of perception. For me, this means awareness of sensory stimuli on some level. I present two cases: the first involves conscious attention, like when you consciously see, say a coffee mug; the second involves what you don’t pay attention to, but that your brain still calculates and connects, like when you are walking down the street, you are not necessarily looking at the cars, but your brain would probably catch if one of them veered onto the sidewalk and you would move before you were necessarily consciously aware of the stimulus.

The second case gets at the things we don’t necessarily attend to because our brain filters out what we don’t need to know. How does it do that? Experience. Consider a baby. They look at pretty much anything and everything they can. Why? Because they don’t know what they have to pay attention to. Arguably at that point they are also looking at what seems the most interesting so it’s not like they are constantly swiveling their head around, but still, they pay attention to a lot of things we as adults are able to tune out. Like the fact that probably close to 30 cars have travelled past my house in the half hour I’ve been writing. I know what the cars/buses/street sweepers sound like, so I don’t have to turn and look at them. My sensory systems are likely sending the information up to my brain but somewhere in the complex mass of neural matter, that info is filtered out – I don’t even really perceive the stimulus. Some would argue that we perceive everything that our sensory systems take in, but for me there is a fine line between sensing and perceiving, the latter requiring attention. Knowledge of what sensory stimuli can and should be filtered out comes partially from our evolutionary hard wiring, and partially from experience. Thus knowledge guides both attention and perception.

Returning to the first case, you may say, “well looking at the coffee mug I’m not predicting anything or relying on previous knowledge – I am just looking at a coffee mug.” Did you not look at it and recognize it as a coffee mug? How did you know that? Somewhere as a child, you asked your parents what it was, and they said mug. How do you look at different mugs and know they are still mugs? Cognitive schemas – built up categories of knowledge and understanding. Even the EXACT same mug NEVER looks the EXACT same. The lighting or angle differs, the contents of the mug, the location. Everything is the same and yet different. (and yes, for those of you wondering, I did spend half the class singing Just Around the River Bend in my head. I shudder for the next generation. Disney has guided my life. For every moment there is a Disney song. The new kids movies are useless in that department. But back to my argument…)

Our sensory systems would have us looking at singular events. Those are useless though. We cannot and do not perceive only ONE thing. To me the entire experience of perception is a pluralized thing, partly because of the fact that we are ALWAYS receiving input from all our senses at once and partly because you always perceive things in context. The only possible exception I can see to this useless principle is the idea of reflexes, for example the reflex to pull your hand away from a hot stove – experience teaches you not to touch the stove in the first place, but reflexes make sure that if you do (crazy psychopaths aside) you pull your hand away before you’ve consciously noticed anything. Neural pathways can be primed leading to faster reaction times, but at the end of the day that is still a product of experience, albeit in a more phylogenetic sense.

Even sleeping, our brain is monitoring the environment – our body is not a computer you shut down at night, it is always at least semi-alert for external information. Think about it. The melatonin system is largely linked to our circadian rhythm (the sleep/wake system). It responds to light and tries to regulate our sleep/wake rhythms with that – it’s why when it gets dark you get tired and you can’t really get a restful sleep in a well lit room (or if you’re like me, the glowing light from my laptop is enough to keep you from getting a good sleep). For this system to work, your visual system must be attentive in some aspect. When you wake up to your alarm, it means your auditory system was paying attention. You’re also still on some level processing and predicting the environment, otherwise standard noises, like your cat jumping on/off the bed would wake you up. Your understanding, built on experience has taught you to be able to distinguish between important and not important. If you fall out of bed, it is because your tactile system registered alarm worthy information. I could go on, but you get the point – your system is always on, trying to predict and understand the world, even if you’re not aware of it.

Brain Juice Coffee MugBuilding on importance of perception in context. Let’s go back to the coffee mug. I see the coffee mug, but I also have to perceive the table. If it was not on the table, my understanding of gravity would tell me that it is falling, which my understanding of what happens when things fall and the durability of ceramics would lead me to believe that my favourite mug would break. Inherent in my perception of the table, is my understanding on the properties of wood and the probability that this table will collapse, knocking my laptop and mug to the ground. Which means I have to also have to be aware of the flooring surface supporting the table. My previous perceptions tell me whether or not I should expect there to still be coffee in the mug. If I see steam, I would conclude that yes, there is still drinkable coffee in the mug. I could go on until you cry mercy – but see my point? Perception is not as simple and basic as we say it is.

If you go down to the really basic levels of sensory information – we have neural signals. Surely that is without experience bias right? Most likely, but that is not perception. The instant we perceive, our brain inserts knowledge built on experience to understand it. The jury is still out for me on whether or not this means that the mind is intent on predicting via this understanding or if understanding is a concept that can truly stand on its own.

So what have I come up with so far in this whole percepts, concepts, and understanding debate?

  1. Percepts do not occur in isolation, they are born from the mating of our internal world, our histories, past experiences, and learned habits; and our sensory stimuli affecting our body in a very primal and physiological way.
  2. It is only though integration that these sensory events – the integration of information from each individual retinal cell and nerve in our body that we experience anything for the reality our systems have constructed, which I choose to believe to be the reality.
  3. Even when we are not aware of it, our sensory systems are taking in info. It is only when we consciously choose, or are alerted that it is necessary to choose, to attend that we become aware of the information.
  4. A lot more goes into perception that we generally think of – go ahead, try to fulfill the toilet assignment.
  5. We cannot separate the context from the item in perception, but we can recognize objects independent of context.
  6. Harry Potter is awesome.
  7. I need to speak to a plumber and figure out this toilet business.

Tune in next week as I conquer what understanding and predicting are and how they differ from percepts and how we build and share knowledge!

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

P.S. Sorry for the delay getting this up! Midterms and OC Transpo were determined to thwart me this week!

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