Notes On Narwhals

In the latter half of If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, Justin Gregg suggests that we humans have “much larger number of cognitive processes that are potentially able to step into the spotlight of consciousness” than do other animals. “We’re not more conscious,” he writes, “we’re just conscious of more things.” This is a tricky idea to get your head around, but then he tells a story.

A few years ago, my friend Monica was explaining the concept of aphantasia, a disorder that she had. This is the inability for some people (approximately 1 percent of the population) to see images in their mind’s eye. “When people with aphantasia close their eyes, they see only blackness, never able to conjure up the image of, say, an apple,” she explained.

“That’s sad. So, wait a minute—if you close your eyes, you’re unable to think of an apple?” I asked.

“No. That’s not it. I can think of an apple, I just can’t see it as if it were a photograph. Like normal people can.”

“Right,” I said. “But, of course, nobody can actually see an image of an apple in their mind’s eye as if it were a photograph. That’s crazy.”

“Most people can.”

“But that’s impossible. I mean, when I close my eyes, I know that I am thinking of what an apple looks like. I just don’t see an apple.”

“Umm, Justin? I think you might have aphantasia, too.”

I asked my wife if, when she closed her eyes and tried to picture an apple, she actually “saw” a picture of an apple. She said she could. Everyone else I asked confirmed that they can see photograph-like images of apples in their mind’s eye, with varying levels of detail and intensity. But I see nothing. Monica was right. It turns out that I, too, have aphantasia.

Longtime readers here (or in various incarnations of here, at any rate) will know that, like Gregg, I am among those who only recently not only learned about aphantasia for the first time but realized that I myself am aphantasic. It, and the often-associated severely-deficient autobiographical memory, are among the new mental boxes I discovered after my autism diagnosis to house different aspects of my life.

At any rate, Gregg tells this story to make a very particular point for those trying to grasp his description of animal versus human consciousness.

Unlike a neurotypical human, my conscious mind is incapable of generating imagined images of things to help it figure out, for example, where in the supermarket the peanut butter is located. The thing is, I know the peanut butter’s location in the store and I can describe where it is using words. I can “feel” its location somehow. I just can’t “see” the layout of the store in my mind. I lack a capacity for conscious visual imagination. When I read a science fiction book, I cannot conjure images of the space stations that are being described. I cannot close my eyes and see my daughter’s face. And yet, I guarantee that I am no less conscious than other human beings. My experience of consciousness as it flits across that improv stage feels the same as yours. I just have one fewer improviser waiting to step into the spotlight.

A lot of discussion about the various ideas of consciousness, intelligence, and sentience often talk about degrees, but what Gregg gets at here (if I can oversimplify) is the idea that consciousness perhaps doesn’t work by degrees; what works by degrees is the question of how many cognitive processes a system has to fuel or command consciousness.

It never would have occurred to me to think about aphantasia in this way, but it sounds right to me. It feels right as a gesture toward where lies the distinction between human and other consciousness.

In my earlier mention of this book, I noted that I was interested to see if it speak to my general sense that maybe we make more of ourselves in contrast to other types of animals than might always be warranted.

I’ve wondered in the past whether or not a significant portion of what we consider to be our freely-taken decisions might not in fact be our “higher” brain functions telling stories about decisions made at lower levels of which we aren’t aware. The book does, in fact, get into this a bit.

Gregg explains that in countries whose organ donation programs are “opt-in”, participation runs low; in countries where they are “opt-out”, it runs high. In essence: the inertia of “the status quo” seems to control the “decision”, whatever stories we tell ourselves or each other later on.

’[…] People who were in the opt-in form say things like, you know, I’m really worried about the medical system and whether some physicians will pull the plug a little too early if I do this. And people in the opt-out form say, you know, my parents raised me to be a caring, wonderful human being.”

These people are not lying. Their conscious minds are just searching for a post hoc explanation as to why they did what they did. But this is a delusion. […]

This more or less encompasses what I actually believe. I think we developed this ability to storytell—it has clear survival benefits if you can tell your tribemate that you’ve seen mammoth hit the same watering hole every day this week and lately the small one keeps lingering behind—and can’t help but apply it to basically everything around us, and inside us.