Archive for April, 2011

Imagining the fourth dimension

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Just because you can’t visualize or describe something to someone else doesn’t mean it can’t exist. Philosophers are still debating the existence, or otherwise, of qualia – sensations that you can certainly experience but may not be able to describe with words (e.g. describing the perception of the colour red to someone blind from birth).  Psychologist Donald Hoffman describes a cognitive disorder he calls prosthetomegethy which gives some individuals the ability to imagine or perceive a fourth spatial dimension, where the normal visual world is enhanced with an extra dimension of probability or hypothetical space. The actual existence of such a condition is rather questionable (the author admits to using some “artistic licence”) but it’s not hard to imagine that some individuals might possess such an insightful gift.

If, as some thinkers have suggested, the fourth dimension is time-related in the sense of a time-space continuum, perception of events that are yet to occur begin to make some kind of sense as an added ability to discriminate events that might involve both past and future time.  Perceiving events that occurred in the past need not only involve recall of things that an individual has actually experienced, as “remembering” past-lives episodes can supposedly place someone in a time period that precedes their actual lifespan. Critics of therapies that are based on the “recall” of past lives often attribute the resulting outcomes to the therapists’ subconscious or deliberate implantation of false memories in their subjects, creating a dramatic narrative of events based purely on imagination.  We shouldn’t discount the power of imagination, however.  It is, after all, the basis of creativity and has some connection to perceptions experienced in dreams or dream-states. German chemist Kekule’s dream of a snake swallowing its tail that lead to his description of the benzene ring is a classic example of how dreams can have an impact on original thought.

The phenomenon commonly known as déjà vu (already seen), where a person has the strange feeling that they’ve “been here before” is experienced at random times by most people.  Sometimes the sensation can present as a déjà vécu (already lived) variant where there is a strong sense that what is happening in the present has already played out identically at some time in the past.

Most humans draw on past experience when faced with an initially novel or threatening situation.  Typically, the mind immediately begins a pattern-matching search of memory, trying desperately to find a past experience that is a close match for the current situation and that can provide reassurance for a survivable outcome.  Somebody approaching the podium to give a public speech in front of a large crowd probably does this, thinking back to the last time they were in this situation and recalling that it wasn’t so bad once they got started.  In one sense, that person is projecting their past onto their (immediate) future, visualising a positive, survivable outcome that has a high probability of coming true.

A step beyond the concept of the probability of something happening as we imagined it would is the idea of certainty that an event will occur in the future. This is where the idea of an extra fourth-dimensional perception kicks in.  Someone who could “see” in the fourth dimension could possibly perceive (as opposed to visualise or imagine) the end result of a visual sequence before it had actually occurred, in effect “pre-experiencing” what seems to be a real event. To them, the future occurrence is never in doubt because it’s been experienced already and is therefore seen as a past event.  The concept of such premonitional episodes is hardly a new idea, but the statement: “I have seen the future and it is … (good/bad/awesome)” might be a statement of visual fact in the minds of people who are absolutely certain that what they have “seen” will really come to pass.

So is the fourth dimension, if it exists at all, a spatial phenomenon such as a hypercube that we can crudely sketch in 2 or 3 dimensions or does it only exist as a time-related mental event?  One neurological explanation for the sensation of a déjà vu event is that it’s the result of an “overlap between the neurological systems responsible for short-term memory and those responsible for long-term memory (events which are perceived as being in the past)” – Wikipedia page on Deja Vu..

These events are “stored into memory before the conscious part of the brain even receives the information and processes it.”  This explanation is inadequate, however, when well-documented accounts of accurate predictions that subsequently proved to be correct are considered.  For example, psychics who predict exactly where a body will be found sometimes days before its subsequent location are obviously not suffering from a momentary “mis-wiring” of their memory systems.

“But if perception is construction, and not restricted to being merely reconstruction, then it’s an open possibility that some human observers might learn to perceive 4D worlds.”
– Davies, T., Hoffman, D. and Rodriguez, A. (2002) Visual Worlds: Construction or Reconstruction. In Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 9 No. 5/6.

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