The Homunculus: Perception as adjustment, prediction and preparation for Reality

© Mary Evans / Natural History Museum

According to medieval arcanum, the homunculus is a small person–a double of sorts–that supposedly dwells esoterically inside one’s physical (i.e., brain, semen, heart), or virtual (i.e., soul) extensions. It was a concept that helped translate the operations of medicine and alchemy in anthropomorphic terms. In modern day parlance, the homunculus is still used to refer to regions of the brain that are responsible for producing the body’s sensory and motor experiences. These regions–whose totality encompasses the external body–are therefore metaphorized into a representation of the body that lives inside the brain. Some of these brain-maps have been rendered into actual bodily representations are are quite something to look at.

But the realities of modern neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy have newly resurrected this concept. And the truth is as bizarre, unsettling and awe-inspiring as any alchemical treatise. Let us start with the neuroscience. As described in this article, a revolution in neuroscience kicked off when “a team of Italian researchers found individual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.” Naming these neurons mirror neurons, the researchers concluded that these neurons were somehow responsible for the way that we enter into the worlds (i.e., ‘minds’) of those around us, be they animal, human or non-organic. Essentially, the idea here is that these neurons allow us to simulate the inner world of whatever we are watching by a) projecting our own bodies into that same environment and action-experience that we witness the other subject engaging in and b) translating those body experiences (that we supposedly access via the firing of our mirror neurons) into mental representations of the other subject’s inner world of emotions, thoughts, intentions etc. For example, if I watch a monkey eating a banana (a reversal of one of the original experiments), I will be able to project my own fingers wrapped around the sticky, sweet-smelling and bright fruit. As the animal inserts the fruit into its mouth, I might feel imagine my own throat imbibing the edible. As my mouth starts salivating in preparation for the fruit (which my conscious brain knows is not there), I can understand how the monkey is feeling–her delight, ease, and also satiation. Of course, these scenarios are probably most informative for human-to-human interactions and least informative for human-to-nature events. Although we mentalize the experiences of natural weather phenomena (i.e., angry skies, caressing waves, lazy afternoon sun), this form of sense-making only serves our own need for narration and is inconsequential–or perhaps even detrimental–to a truer understanding of the phenomena at hand.

Still, our ability to understand others through the situation of our body also suggests, unsurprisingly, that our bodily awareness forms a fundamental core–or grammar–for how we communicate our understanding to one another. This was convincingly argued in the 1980 essay and book of scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The body, they argued, supplied us with a sense-making apparatus that heavily guides our construction of concepts such as time, space, work and the mental activities of others. To use one simple example, it is a well-known finding that we tend to under-estimate the amount of change we will undergo in the next 10 years, even though we are fully aware of the changes we have undertaken in the decade prior. The body seems to present us with a constancy of self and we are less likely to notice gradual changes than someone who has just seen us after many years apart. Similarly, our inability to notice gradual changes in our bodies might account for how little we regard the changes we are constantly undertaking in the present, towards our new future. Although this example is somewhat conjecture and could benefit from rigorous empirical testing, there are many conclusions in Lakoff and Johnson’s work that have borne out over the decades since its publication.

More recently, the leading neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has argued that emotions are the body’s attempt to predict (or virtualize) the outcome of the environment. Rather than thinking of emotions as inner, private experiences, scientific research suggests that emotions are responses that the brain creates for the purpose of helping the organism prepare (e.g., psychologically, behaviorally, physiologically) for anticipated demands in the environment. If I see a person holding their hand behind their back, walking to me quickly and scowling, my brain will anticipate a confrontation and produce the emotion of fear to mobilize my flight-fight system and prepare my mind and body for the stress that I believe is imminent. My brain has virtualized the beginning, middle and ending of the encounter just from the comprehension of its first few moments. I am able to virtualize this by projecting my body into the other and understanding that if I was walking and posturing like that, I would be preparing to attack. Of course, this virtual simulation may be entirely wrong–and I might learn that from this situation–but the point is that our connection to our inner body maintains and sustains our connection to our external world. Indeed there is some interested contemporary research that is supportive of this hypothesis.

Our ability to virtualize the world through entering into it vis a vis our body suggests that dance and play may have been important precursors and enhancers of language. There is also debate on whether the structure of communication is inherently narrative. Important new research is now being undertaken to understand whether the virtual worlds we create on the internet–whether in video-games, pornography, deep-fake videos–may allow us to develop psychological and linguistic competence in increasingly complex and connected social environments. The 20th-century philosopher–perhaps the greatest of his era–Maurice Merleau-Ponty tried to understand the relationship between positivism (i.e., the concrete facts of existence) and idealism (i.e., the reasons, concepts, and ideas that are supposed to give meaning to those facts). How do sound vocalizations assemble themselves into ideas that we use in language? He wrote profusely about this, but his ideas can be tritely distilled into a simple illustration. The body unites all of the sensory inputs that it receives from it’s being-in-the-world, not by virtue of its defacto wiring, but instead from it’s particular being in that world with its ability to virtualize the environment and adjust, predict and prepare for it. Whether the body constructs the world as pleasant, painful, anxious or calm depends on how our brain fits the predicted (virtual) world into its own agenda of needs, wants, fears and intentions. Merleau-Ponty was fascinated by the invisible aspect (i.e., meaning) of language curling into its visible (i.e., the sounds and signifiers) aspects. Scientists are converging on the ghost in the machine–it may look a lot like the little man in the box.

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