When I was in 10th grade I took a course in formal logic. I had been a big fan of logic (and math in general) for several years, so I was looking forward to seeing how the class would approach the subject. I personally liked the teacher and I knew he thought very deeply about a range of topics (including aesthetics and philosophy). I was sure I was going to have a great time.
Unfortunately, the overall learning strategy of the class consisted of studying the textbook in extreme detail. The way I remember the textbook was that it featured a mixture of very casual and naïve paragraphs interspersed with blocks of rigid definitions and formulaic procedures for solving logic problems. My overall perception of the textbook was that anyone with a genuine interest in the beauty of math would experience the exercise of reading this book as particularly unpleasant.
I was used to math classes that didn’t actually require you to study anything; usually, problem solving skills and pragmatic inference of the meaning of words during the exam was good enough. In contrast, most questions on the exams for this class had a very particular style. The answers had to be verbatim repeats of the specific idiosyncratic responses found in the textbook. If you knew the contents of the textbook by heart, then the exam would be trivial. If you didn’t, then no amount of problem solving would get you anywhere.
These exams were open-note but closed-textbook, which meant that if you simply copied the entire textbook into your notebook you would easily be able to respond accurately to the vast majority of the questions. And if you didn’t, then you were almost guaranteed to fail. This meant that the largest fraction of the variance of grades in the class was determined by whether or not students took the time to do the grueling task of transcribing an entire textbook into their notebooks.
Needless to say, I intensely disliked this approach.
Thankfully, in every bad situation you can always find something good that redeems it a little bit . And in this case, what could be rescued from the situation was the man from Figure 5.9:
This must have been around page 150, which dealt with the need for logic. The textbook said, in a very informal way, something along the lines of: “Imagine a man without any logic. This person would have disjointed thoughts with no objectives, and he would be incapable of making sense of anything. The man in question would be confused. See Figure 5.9”
The teacher joked that the man in the figure could be experiencing one of many possible states of mind. His expression is somewhat ambiguous and it is unclear what exactly it adds to the conversation. Likewise, the facial features are not even the most salient component of the picture; his hair looks completely bizarre.
The Value of Confusion
This picture made me reflect on the difficulty of expressing mental states using drawings and pictures. A facial expression is perhaps a good start. Words, of course, and dialogue can help you trigger an emotion or state of being. But that only takes you so far, and it restricts you to what are largely social emotions.
Confusion, on the other hand, is an umbrella term for many states that are hard to communicate and describe. There is perceptual confusion, emotional confusion, cognitive confusion and even ontological confusion. Each of these varieties contains many flavors; there is a combinatorial explosion of possible reasons for the confusion.
Subjectively, confusion is an extremely interesting state of consciousness, since it spawns a lot of novelty. Even though it can and often is unpleasant (especially when what’s at stake is something one values), confusion comes in all shades of hedonic tone. Pleasant confusion is possible, and indeed it may play an important role in philosophical and spiritual euphoria. Likewise, one can achieve fantastic levels of neutral-valence confusion during meditation (alternating, at times, with states of very high clarity). Epiphanic, wondrous and mystical states are also often proceeded by profound confusion of the ontological kind (where you doubt the deepest background assumptions that provide the stilts upon which your worldview is suspended).
The fact that the texture of one’s experience has information processing properties (aka qualia computing) is itself more evident during states of confusion. For example, when you are confused about the meaning of something, this will have implications for the way you experience language and encode gestalts of experience (ex: “This synesthetic sensation here is usually paired up with meaning, but what is the meaning of it now? Without experiencing the meaning I usually ascribe to the sensation, I can’t compare it to other sensations I’ve had before.”)
Since language and facial expressions have their limitations, one might prefer to communicate confusion and other states using non-symbolic expressions. Visual textural gestalts, it seems to me, may take us the farthest in this direction, at least with the current level of technology (that is, unless we also include music, which itself has textural qualities).
In order to visualize new kinds of confusion, we can project the textural gestalt that the man from Figure 5.9 is experiencing into the picture itself, and imagine that we were given private access to his state of consciousness. We can then experience what it would be like to be him in these different experiential worlds, and introspect on the subjective nature of his confusion.
Doing this is now easier than ever thanks to the recent and fantastic developments in deep neural networks. In order to try out this technology, I decided to texturize the confusion of the man from Figure 5.9 in a myriad of ways. The textures themselves are a mixture of pictures I’ve taken or synthesized in the last couple of years and textures I’ve found online. I used the cool online service developed by the Bethge lab at the University of Tübingen to make these pictures. Feel free to try it yourself, it’s really fun.
So here you have it folks. The man of Figure 5.9, experiencing 36 different kinds of confusion: