Thursday, January 24, 2008

Phosphenes as Visual Categories

After reading some of Chomsky's work on innate transformative grammar, I must say I feel quite humbled in realizing how little I know about linguistics. Chomsky's work is remarkable in its depth and it appears almost scathingly flawless in its logic (politics aside). Yesterday I was considering the possibility that an innate grammar (or structural syntax) might also provide the framework for the way in which we organize visual imagery. But Chomsky's insistence on modularity makes me think that perhaps trying to use an innate grammar for visual processing is quite likely sheer folly.

Another line of thinking occured as I was driving into work this morning. What if phosphenes act as hard-wired visual categories that represent the prototypical movements observed in our natural, physical world? In other words, perhaps phosphenes represent the paths or trails, through physical space of animals, insects, clouds, water and everything else that a human might observe in nature. Imagine water going down the drain in a spiral shape, or rings emanating outward when a drop hits the surface of water, or a squirrel running across a tree limb, or a rock dropping off the edge of a cliff. We know that we share some instinctual fear reactions to certain silhouette shapes, such as a starburst spider shape, with animals. Could it be that the phosphenes are categories onto which we later map specific instances that are obtained from our interaction with the real world? That these categories become increasingly dense (or rich) with experience over time.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Parsing Geometric Patterns

Phosphene symbols may possibly be common to all mammals, since we share a similarly evolved visual cortex. But spoken language is without a doubt unique only to humans. No one knows why human brains got so big. Perhaps they grew to accommodate the demands of an evolving, and increasingly complex verbal language system. Having a syntax for language then allowed humans to develop rational brains that are both anticipatory and also reflective, or able to re-member and reassemble. Recognition may be an ability we share with mammals, but recall may be a uniquely human ability. Our rational brain structure, shaped by the demands of spoken language, perhaps made it possible for humans to not only associate sounds to meanings (spoken language) but also to organize and structure the language in our minds (syntax and memory). The demands of language could have been the impetus for human brain growth. Perhaps the evolved brain, suitable for sending and receiving spoken language, also primed humans in their early attempts at geometric graphical depiction, and quite soon after, written language. I think verbal language abilities in humans needed to be quite significantly evolved before attempts at graphical depiction was even cognitively possible.

So, if we want to decipher early geometric patterns, we might very well begin by applying a parsing method equivalent to natural language parsing. The rationale here is that the human mind evolved to accommodate spoken language, but that this also opened the door into the world of association and syntax for a different form of communication -- graphics. When parsing a natural language sentence, there is a start and an end, and an intermediary construction consisting of a subject and an object, possibly with an indication of a context of some kind. One attribute of natural language is its inherent ambiguity, not only in the words used, but also conveyed by sentence structure (ambiguous prepositional phrases) and also voice tonality and inflection. These additional 'channels' of information help to convey the meaning of the message.

It is possible I am simply restating what Chomsky has already proposed, so I must do a bit more research about his position.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Markings as Evidence of Ownership?

I showed my 5-year-old son the image of the oldest art object ever found and told him it belonged to a cave man and asked him why he thought there were lines drawn on it. He said, "The cave man made lines on his rock because it was important to him and he wanted to remember which one it was. And he wanted people to know that it was his rock."

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Meaning of Adinkra Symbols

This site of Adinkra symbols from Western Africa is really quite amazing. The meaning of each symbol is given on the site. The symbol shown above is the symbol of greatness, charisma and leadership. All of these symbols look very much like embellished phosphene symbols. I think these symbols may represent an intermediary step between abstract geometric representation and symbolic language.

Adinkra Symbols of West Africa

In looking at a global map and an associated timeline for prehistoric art, I wanted to review the evolution of symbols and pattern imagery found in Africa -- where the oldest art object (see previous post) has been found -- to see if I could identify a 'next step' or transitional phase. I was looking, in particular, for evidence of embellished phosphene symbols. And I think I've found them in the Adinkra symbols of West Africa.

Oldest art in the world - A System of Patterns

The world's oldest example of abstract art, dating back more than 70,000 years, has been found in a cave in South Africa.

Complex motif

Dr Christopher Henshilwood, from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says: "They may have been constructed with symbolic intent, the meaning of which is now unknown.

"The engraving itself is quite a complex geometric pattern. There is a system to the patterns."

"We don't know what they mean, but they are symbols that I think could have been interpreted by those people as having meaning that would have been understood by others."

The engraved ochre pieces were recovered from Middle Stone Age layers at Blombos Cave, 290 kilometres (180 miles) east of Cape Town, and are at least 70,000 years old.

Dr Henshilwood says more than 8,000 other pieces of ochre were found in the cave, many of which had been rubbed smooth as if to make pigment powder.

Stone Age Map 10,000 B.C.

The oldest map in the world, discovered in Ukraine in 1966, is from about 11,000 - 12,000 B.C. Inscribed on a mammoth tusk it was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It has been interpreted to show a river with dwellings along a river.

I think this map may have been a battle/attack plan. The lines at the top indicate attacking from the top of the mountain. The shape of the buildings indicate what type of defenses they have. It looks like a catapult in several of the structures. I can imagine a general sending out a scout to make this drawing and then returning to the army with the map, so they could prepare for the battle.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The 10 Sephirot - Patterns in Spirituality

This investigation into the world of patterns is leading to spirituality. This pattern represents the 'Sephirot'. It looks very similar to the central structure of E8.

The idea of the ten Sephirot (literally the "categories" or "symbols") is the most familiar and widespread of all Kabbalistic motifs. It first appears in the books of Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Bahir, and probably dates from the first millennium. It is a very conscious attempt to offer an alternative to a rational, philosophical view of how God interacts with humans and vice versa.

In a nutshell, the Sephirot are like a transistor that enables us to receive messages and send them. If God, Ein Sof, is not physical in any way, then there is a problem as to how there can be any interaction between the purely spiritual and the material. By interposing the Sephirot they become the channels through which we receive and transmit the lines of communication with the Divine.

- from Jeremy Rosen's website: