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Body Image, Memory and Identity

A dialogue with Israel Rosenfield
Israël Rosenfield et Tatjana Barazon

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1- Hello! This issue is about thresholds, or as I called it “soglitude”. My idea is that in order to be a coherent thought process or philosophical system or artistic design, there has to be the awareness of what I call thresholds, which means that there should be the interaction of binding and separating, and the constant change of perspective must be constantly integrated in the system. Can you make something of this idea in your research?

2I think that the notion of ‘thresholds’ is directly related to the problem of awareness, or consciousness in the sense that our perceptions are part of a ‘stream of consciousness’, part of a continuity of experience. Our sense of color, or of smell, or of motion, comes precisely from the flow of perceptions – the thresholds – from the comparisons the brain makes from moment to moment. For example, motion pictures give us a sense of continual movement by means of a series of static images presented in rapid succession. Our conscious experience is not one of one static image followed by another. Instead we see motion because we (our brains) relate one image to the next. In general, it is this relating, this connecting between moments, not the moments themselves, that is at the heart of our conscious awareness. Conscious perception is temporal: the continuity of consciousness derives from the correspondence which the brain establishes from moment to unrelated moment. Apparently static images are not static, but relations, connections the brain establishes over time, from moment to moment. Without this activity of connecting, we would merely perceive a sequence of unrelated stimuli from moment to unrelated moment and we would be unable to transform this experience into knowledge and understanding of the world – or we would more probably not perceive anything at all. That is why conscious human knowledge is so different from the ‘knowledge’ that can be stored in a machine or in a computer. The notion of thresholds is, I believe, about these subtle shifts of perspective that the brain must integrate into a coherent viewpoint.

3-How does the question of identity play into the threshold theme? Is the constant change of states a way to call the threshold thinking by having the illusion of a stable self, when it is in fact constantly moving from one state - or even one personality- to another? What happens when there are multiple personalities?

4The search for an ‘identity’, the constant and subtle shifts from one personality to another in our encounters with each other are characteristic of all of us; neurological breakdowns can lead to syndromes of ‘multiple personalities’ – cases in which the change from one personality to another is radical, with a loss of memory about one’s previous personality. Indeed, multiple personalities have too few personalities, unlike most of us. What we might call the syndrome of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, involves not only a change of personality, but a complete reworking of one’s memories and sense of self and of one’s sense of one’s own body. Involuntary changes of personality that are of neurological origin are accompanied by radical changes in our sense of self. And we should add that the neurological loss of an ability to have emotional reactions, can make us believe that our most intimate family and friends are imposters, as the French Neurologist Joseph Capgras first described in 1923. Capgras’s patient thought her husband and children were ‘sosies’.  Part of the problem of Capgras’ patient was her brain’s inability to establish a sense of continuity over time. She noted that her husband’s mustache changed every time she met him. That was why he was an ‘impostor’. She was unable to relate the changes to the same person.

5Capgras’ patient has the same problem that our brains normally solve for us without our being aware of what it is doing. For the problem is, in part, that our sensory environments are very messy and constantly changing and the brain must give these environments a sense. What the brain must do is somehow stabilize this environment, make it into something coherent that the individual can ‘understand’ and use. And the way the brain does this is by ‘inventing’ what we perceive.

6-How is it possible for the brain to invent what we perceive? Aren’t there objective facts - like earthquakes - that the brain does not “invent”? Or to put I more simply, where is the border between what is objective and what the perception makes of it by inventing our reality? Is there another perceptive threshold?

7 The brain ‘invents’ in the sense that it must make the world coherent. What does it mean to say there is an objective ‘fact’ of an earthquake? During an earthquake the earth shakes, rumbles and splits open. Our brains integrate these various observations, sensations into what we call ‘earthquakes’.  Of course, there are ways of organizing sensory information that are more useful than others – and their usefulness is what makes them, in some sense ‘facts’, or even ‘true’.

8Artists have always known, at least intuitively, that the brain makes possible the creation of our visual worlds, since representational art uses materials on a flat surface to create the illusion of faces, objects, and scenes. Hence what the brain does, is transform visual and other stimuli into a series of inventions that are what we ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ when we look around us.

9Indeed we might argue that it is the need to create a coherent environment out of the chaotic stimuli, that is one of the brain’s primary activities. For example, there are no colors in the world, but many different (colorless) waves; our visual worlds are in fact a constantly changing environment of lightness and darkness. If we were directly aware of the light hitting our retinas, we would be very disturbed by the instability of our visual images. It would resemble strobe lights going on and off in a grey world. Normally, our visual worlds are stabilized because the brain simplifies the visual environment by comparing the various amounts of lightness and darkness in three different wavelengths of light and this comparison gives rise to what we perceive as color.

10In other words, the brain creates a sense of "color constancy": no matter what the lighting conditions — bright sunlight, filtered sunlight, or artificial lighting —colors remain more or less the same. This remarkable ability is not fully understood, but depends, in part, on the brain's comparing the amount of light reflected in the long (red), middle (green), and short (blue) frequencies coming from different parts of a given scene. In a famous experiment performed by Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, Land took two black and white photos of a particular scene. One photo was taken with a red filter and the other with a green filter. He then projected slides of the photos, superimposing them, using only a red filter in front of the projector with the photo taken with a red filter. The original colors of the scene were visible, even though only a red filter was used. Since the black and white photos had been taken with different filters (red and green) – in other words in different frequencies of light – the distribution of light and darkness in each photo was different. Red apples will appear light in a black and white photo taken with a red filter (the red light is absorbed by the filter), whereas they will appear dark in a photo taken with a green filter (the light can pass through the filter). The brain compares the dark/light ratios in the different frequencies of light to which the eye is sensitive (essentially the red, green and blue wavelengths of light) and it creates colors from these comparisons. Therefore by creating colors the visual environment is stabilized. Furthermore, since colors are created when the brain compares the ratios of light frequencies reflected by neighboring surfaces, colors establish borders; even in chaotic and turbulent paintings there are always unavoidable distinctions from one shade of color to another. Brain injury can destroy the ability of the brain to compare the reflectance of light in different frequencies, and consequently individuals with damage to the area of the brain where the comparisons are made will see the world as constantly changing levels of grey light. Along with the destruction of the ability to see colors, is the loss of any recollection of colors, or even a sense of what colors are. In other words, knowledge and recollection depends on the brain being able to carry out the processes that create our awareness of that knowledge (in this case our knowledge of what color is).

11This idea that colors don’t really exist but rather are created by brain processes, does it question the objective reality of things? Is there a tendency toward something like what Kant called the thing itself? Does it make any sense to question the reality of a thing when its existence depends on our perception?

12In a sense the question is not whether or not colors exist or 'things' exist, but how the brain (mind) attempts to create a meaningful environment - meaningful in the sense of the survival of the individual. The brain's creation of colors is a way of organizing a messy dirty grey visual world. Colors make it possible to visually organize that world. So too, the notion of an object, a table, a chair, and so on, are ways of organizing the world. Does the chair exist? Well, of course it does. But our minds have made it into an object with a certain significance, meaning. As making the grey world of light into colors, as a significance that helps us (and other living things, including insects) negotiate the visual world. Given this I'm not sure what it means to say 'the thing itself'. I think the point is the more we will learn about the nature of perception,  the better we will understand how the world as we see it is a mental construct that is not independent of what we call 'reality'.

13The way colors are created is the model for how the brain creates knowledge. And so, too, the color story tells something about how the brain gives meaning to signs and symbols as the following famous neurological study illustrates.

14In the 1890s the French neurologist Jules Dejerine described what has become a classic example of a neurological breakdown following a cerebral accident. Dejerine’s patient, Oscar, one day suddenly realized that he could not read a single word, though he could write (without being able to read what he had written) and had not lost any powers of speech or recognition of objects, people and places. Oscar thought he had a problem with his eyes, but when he visited an optometrist he realized that he could see letters and words, since he could retrace them stroke by stroke, but he was unable to make name the letters or read words. Curiously he could read single digit numbers, - 1, 2, 3, 4,  . . .,- but was unable to read 112 as ”one hundred and twelve”. He could only read, “one, one, two.” Instead of naming letters, he compared them to animals or objects: thus Z he compared to a serpent, A to an easel and P to a buckle. The use of such images suggested to Dejerine that his patient’s visual centers had been ‘disconnected’ from the linguistic centers of the brain, as if there were a wire that connected the visual and language areas of the brain had been broken. He therefore argued that his patient retained to ability to ‘draw’ but that he couldn’t make any linguistic sense out of the drawings. Oscar’s brain can no longer make the correlations necessary for reading and understanding letters; nor can his brain carry out an analogous set of procedures to create the awareness of color in part of his visual field. Ornamentation, too, is a creation of the brain. What is interesting about Dejerine’s case is that it suggests how, from a neurological point of view, symbols (context dependent) are profoundly different from non-symbolic images (relatively context independent).

15So too our sense self, our notions of who we are and who others are, are creations of the brain. I have mentioned we are normally many different, constantly changing personalities.

16We understand the world through our understanding of ourselves – or our many selves. All of these personalities are contained, held together, within our body schema. A change of body schema gives rise to a change of personality; a breakdown of the sense of body, gives rise to a breakdown of the sense of self and with it a loss of knowledge of our surroundings. The fragility of this understanding (our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us) and the relation between body schema and our knowing who are was shown by an experiment performed in the 1960s. Subjects were asked to introduce a gloved hand into a box. They were told to observe their hand but they were not informed that another gloved had been introduced into the box just above theirs. The gloved hand they were actually observing was that of the experimenter, not their own. They were then told to make certain movements (“make a fist, now open it” etc.) with their hand. The experimenter made precisely these movements and the subjects believed they were watching their own hands. From time to time, the experimenter failed to follow the commands and the subject saw his gloved hand moving in a way that was different from what he was actually doing. For example, if he had been told to make a fist, the experimenter spread his hand open.

17About thirty percent of the subjects believed the hand they were observing was their own and they felt they were being controlled by an external force. They also felt considerable pain when their hand ‘failed’ to carry out the experimenter’s commands.

18More recently the experiment was performed on patients with symptoms of schizophrenia: 80% of these patients complained their hands were being controlled by an outside force.

19But what is the source of the pain the subjects feel when they observe the experimenter’s hand disobeying the commands? It appears to be related to the incoherence between what is being observed (a hand spreading wide open, for example) and the action the brain believes it is performing (making a fist). When what the brain ‘sees’ and what it ‘feels’ it is doing appear to be identical, there is no pain, no feeling an outside force is controlling one’s movements.

20-What about a blind person? Does this “body image” only work on a visual basis or are there other ways for the brain to create those “maps” of the body?

21For sure there are non-visual ways for the brain to create ‘maps’ of the body. John Hull, who became blind as a young man, describes how he lost visual memories of those he encounters often, while the images of those he no longer encounters remain visual – until the day he meets someone he has not seen for a long time. The new encounter will change his ‘perception’ of the acquaintance into a non-visual form.  Indeed his sense of his own self has changed: “I find that I am trying to recall old photographs of myself, just to remember what I look like. I discover with a shock that I cannot remember.” (John Hull, Touching the Rock, 1990, London, page 111) Hull’s new experiences now refer to his nonvisual body image; inevitably his face ‘disappears’.

22Our sense of self is a consequence of constant change - what Henri Bergson,  called, perhaps in a similar vein, “le souvenir du présent” (1908). The brain integrates past and present into a new form – conscious knowledge and awareness of self.

23Could you elaborate on that? What is the knowledge of self in this “souvenir du présent”? Is it in any connection to what Edelman calls “remembered present”? Is it a neurological analysis of the déjà-vu situation that Bergson described when he made a connection between what he calls “la fausse reconnaissance” and “le souvenir du présent” which is in fact a twofold perception, one part is the actual event (le vécu) and the other would be its mirror-image, the instant memory (le souvenir) we have of everything that happens to us?

24I’m not sure that I can make any sense of Bergson’s ‘fausse reconnaisance’ as opposed to ‘le souvenir du present.’. What I find interesting is the idea that consciousness is an integration of past, present and self – and that this is at the heart of our individuality. It is an idea, in one way or another, we find in Bergson and Edelman. And we should add (something that is not really mentioned by either Bergson or Edelman), that the brain’s ‘invention’ of our perceptions (as, for example, colors that I have already discussed) is a way of stabilizing a chaotic environment. Biological systems are obliged to foresee, to predict, the unpredictable – the future. The Darwinian answer is that species create enormous variability to survive. Some variant forms will (with luck) ‘fit’ in a future unforeseen environment. This is the problem we confront in our daily lives. We have to use our recollections to make sense of, adapt to, an environment, or circumstances, that have changed, and that are always changing – and that often enough we cannot foresee. We have to recognize our friends even if they change their clothes or their hairdos; and we must recognize them in new and unfamiliar settings.  We have to confront their changes of mood, as they have confront our unpredictable sudden changes of mood.

25And one last question: Where is the interaction between scientific discovery and everyday use? In what way does our day-to-day conscience benefit from the neurological knowledge? The threshold of perception arises here: should we consider what the scientist sees under a microscope or in his lab in the same way as when we hold a pen? Where is the border that allows us to cope with reality on our everyday scale? To take the microscopic -or cellular - level to our scale and understand it, should it be where the threshold of perception lies? And how do you think this is possible?

26Unfortunately, at the present, there is no connection between what we learn in the laboratory – the discoveries of what happens, for example, at the synaptic level – and our memories, or our consciousness or our psychology in general.  Of course, we believe there are connections, but we are very far from being able to explain what they might be.  Brain imagery – whatever might be interesting about it – doesn’t solve the problem either. At the present time we do not understand the physiological sources of consciousness and memory.

27-Thank you very much for this.

28Transcript by Tatjana Barazon

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Israël Rosenfield et Tatjana Barazon, « Body Image, Memory and Identity »Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2010, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL :

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Israël Rosenfield

est médecin et Professeur des Idées à la City University de New York. Spécialiste de la mémoire en neurosciences, auteur de L’étrange, le familier, l’oublié, Champs-Flammarion, 2005, L’invention de la mémoire, Champs-Flammarion, La mégalomanie de Freud, Seuil, 2000.

Tatjana Barazon

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