Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Dissertation Beginnings

A few weeks into the start of this semester we were encouraged to start thinking about dissertation topics. At that point we were in the middle of our Narrative project in the studio/workshop. I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative project as the topic I chose (OCD) really interested me and kept me motivated. It seemed logical to use this as a starting point for dissertation thinking. During the Narrative project I thought a lot about the senses and what our senses need, what looks pleasing to the eye, what feels good to touch, and possibly even what smells or sounds nice. This initially lead me to consider how our mental health could be improved through our senses. Sensory therapy.
Up until VERY recently I was still going along this therapy and mental health route, however, it's taken a little turn in a new direction. I am now looking at perception and the senses. How our senses and brain work and how they can trick us. Sensory deprivation and synesthesia are important areas which I am looking into. I would also like to do some research into how people with disabilities use their senses and perhaps rely on alternative senses. It's a large and fascinating subject area which I am enjoying learning more about.
To begin with I have looked at many books on perception and the senses and also some on particular senses. Below are two analyses of a couple of very useful books which I think will com in handy.

Introduction to Psychology: Atkinson and Hilgard

Atkinson and Hilgard’s ‘Introduction to Psychology covers all the major areas of psychology from psychological development to language and thought. It examines the theories, research and ideas that support the subject. Due to the large scale of the book I have focused my attention on two chapters in particular: Sensory Processes and Perception.

The chapter, Sensory Processes, talks about which aspects of the environmental information register with our senses and which do not. While the chapter, Perception, addresses what the use of perception is. It is made clear that there is a definite link between the two chapters.

The book consistently relates its concepts to everyday life and draws its information from a wide range of research. There is an emphasis on vision and its ability to obtain information that is at a distance. Vision is discussed at length giving detailed information about seeing patterns, colours and light.
Other senses such as smell and hearing are also looked into in detail. Taste, pressure, temperature and pain are also touched on. There are cutting edge research sections in each chapter. One of great interest is entitled, ‘Where in the Brain Are Illusions?’ by Scott Murray, University of Washington. This looks at how we perceive object size and how our visual system has evolved to interpret a three-dimensional world.

The chapter ‘Perception’ almost carries on from the previous as it tackles how sensory information is processed and used and how organisms process and organise incoming sensory information. The subject of vision is carried through to this chapter and developed. It argues that humans need a constantly updated image fed to their brain in order to perceive, behave and make decisions. Moving on from the previous chapters explanation of how vision works we begin to look at how the information our eyes gather is processed.
We then take a look at attention in vision and hearing. Our senses are constantly bombarded with information and only a tiny amount is relevant. This suggests that the brain must have some sort of screening process.
Localization is a subject I had never really thought of before but is fascinating in its disguised simplicity. This is the need to know where objects are in our environment which involves separating the objects from one one another and from the background. This then allows the perceptual system to to determine the position of the objects in a three-dimensional world.
The cutting edge research section of this chapter talks about diverting attention from burns pain. It is thought that pain perception has a strong psychological component. This section explored what would happen to a patient’s brain when they experienced virtual reality analgesia.

Due to this being a textbook it is a little dry and the language is complex, however, looking at it selectively it is possible to pick out a variety of very useful information. Each chapter ends with a summary of the main points. Diagrams, case studies and examples make this compicated subject far easier to grasp.

Friedrikson, B, Loftus, G, Nolen-Hoeksema, S, Wagenaar, W, Atkinson & Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology 15th Edition, (2009) Italy, Canale

The Man Who Tasted Shapes: Richard E. Cytowic, M.D.

Cytowic’s ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ explores a deeper reality which he believes exists in all of us. Cytowic gives details of two cases of synesthesia and discusses some of the consequences. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two or more bodily senses are merged so that the detection of each is mismatched.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Cytowic describes his chance encounter during a dinner party on with the "Man Who Tasted Shapes." Cytowic describes how his host reported that "There aren't enough points on the chicken!" and how this chance comment led to Cytowic's investigations into the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia. The central theme throughout the book is what, if any, relation synesthesia has with normal brain function and what we can learn from it. It allows us to understand something of normal sensory function.

Cytowic’s interest does not begin and end with the brains of synesthetes. He believes that the solution to the medical mystery of synesthesia has complex implications for all of us. And so two main questions are brought forward: What is the nature of synesthesia? and What is its value? He aims to explain not its meaning for the people who have it but the meaning of synesthesia for those of us whom it does not directly affect.

This acts not only as a sort of biography of the man who tasted shapes but as a double biography. Not only do we learn about the two cases neurologically, and about their synesthesia, we are also drawn into an intellectual autobiography of Cytowic. We learn about his thought processes and hi persistence in uncovering the story and the condition over a long period.

In order to explore the biological starting point of synesthesia, Cytowic describes experiments in which he tested how synesthesia was reduced by a daily routine of stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine and depressants such as alcohol. In more intensive investigations of the effects of different psychoactive substances, Cytowic discovered that stimulants, including a dose of amphetamine decreased the strength of synesthesia, while amyl nitrite increased the strength of synesthesia. For example, one subject reported that mint feels like a cool glass column, but that amyl nitrite led him to feel as if he were placing his hand among many glass columns.
In later chapters, Cytowic reported on his efforts to make synesthesia more widely known, on the experiences of many other synesthetes who have contacted him, and how synesthesia affects their lives.
In the second part of the book, entitled "Essays on the Primacy of Emotion" Cytowic presents a number of his reflections on what the phenomenon of synesthesia means for traditional neuroscientific and neurological practice, how irregular findings can lead to major scientific discoveries, and the role that emotion plays in our understanding of the world around us.

Cytowic, R, E, The Man Who Tasted Shapes (2001) New York, MIT Press

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