030515 – Perceptual(?) oddities

030515 – Perceptual(?) oddities

In 1969, I remarked to Jerry Fodor, who was then my research advisor at M.I.T., that I had recently had an experience in which I glanced at a scene out the window of a bus, glanced away, and then realized that I had seen some word that seemed unlikely to have appeared in the scene.  I had no idea where the word had appeared, but I felt confident that I had indeed seen it.  I returned my gaze to the scene, scanning it as systematically as I could, looking for the word.  After perhaps five or more seconds, I finally located it.  It was on a sign on a building with many signs.

What struck me as notable was that I knew I had seen the word, but I had no idea where in the scene, I had no idea whether the word was written in large or small letters, or what color the letters were.  All I had was the experience of having seen the word, but beyond knowing what the word was, apparently nothing.  Fodor’s comment to me was that clearly the brain’s system for reading does not mark words it reads with their location in space.  (Although note that students often remember where a certain piece of information was located on a page.)

Since then, I have noticed the same phenomenon, reading a word and not knowing where the word appeared in the visual field without having to mount a conscious search.  Is it right to call this perception without awareness or is it actually awareness without perception.

This morning, while listening to the news on the radio, the phone chirruped briefly as if someone had dialed an incorrect number and almost immediately realized it and hung up.  I noticed that I had no idea whether the sound of the phone had occurred before during or after whatever was being said on the radio at the time, that is, my uncertainty of the temporal relationship between the sound of the phone and the sound of the voice on the radio was uncertain over a range of two seconds or more.  This does not worry me.  I can’t think of a reason I would need to be able to make a finer distinction (except in a psycho-acoustic experimental paradigm).

There is, of course, a line of psycholinguistic experiments that explore variants of this phenomenon.  The subject listens to a sentence and at some point in the sentence there is a beep or a click.  The subject is then asked to identify where in the sentence the sound occurred.  The perceived temporal position of the sound can be manipulated by systematically varying the grammatical structure of the sentence.

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