The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 4

Unprojected Consciousness - 4.4.9
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4. The Logical Dependence of Mental Images and Thoughts on Bodily Activity

[9] Ribot's theory that attention is effected by muscular inhibition is not confined to the type of attention we have been considering. He claims that the theory is equally true of another form of attention - inner directed attention - which he calls 'reflection'. Now the dependence of executive attention on muscular activity has been pretty conclusively established. But the idea that muscular activity is the 'indispensable factor' in reflection is much more debatable - not to say paradoxical. How, one might ask, is muscular activity going to help a person to think attentively, or recall a name, It might, admittedly, facilitate attention if we lower our superior orbicular muscles (the muscle of reflection), but we would not deny that a person had thought, or recalled a name, on the ground that he had not lowered his brow at the time. After all, a man may get into the habit of scratching his head before he thinks, and the point could well be reached at which he is incapable of thinking if he is prevented from scratching his head. Nevertheless we would not on that account assert that there is a necessary con- nection between thinking and head-scratching. Even if it became universally true that head-scratching had to precede thinking, we would not deny that a person had thought simply because he had

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not first scratched his head. Quite clearly if the theory of the dependence of reflection on muscular activity is to have any respectability, it must have more to offer than the above would suggest.

Of 'reflection' Ribot says, 'Images and ideas constitute its subject matter.' What he has to do, therefore, is establish a connection between muscular activity and the occurrence of images and ideas. His method of procedure is to use perception as a 'middle term' through which this connection is made. The link between muscular activity and perception has already been established. Ribot's theory hinges, therefore, on the nature of the connection that he tries to establish between perception and ideas and images. An attempt to establish the existence of such a connection was made by Alexander Bain, and Ribot quotes him in support of his position:

"It does not seem plain, at first," wrote Bain, as early as the year 1855, "that the retention of an idea, an image, in the mind is the work of our voluntary muscles. What are the movements produced, when I conceive to myself a circle, or think of St. Paul's? We can answer this question only by supposing that the mental image occupies in the brain and the other parts of the nervous system the same place as the original sensation. As there is a muscular element in our sensations, particularly in those of the highest order - in touch, sight, and hearing - this element must, in some way or other, find its place in ideal sensation - recollection." Since the time that this passage was written, the question of the nature of images has been closely and profitably studied, and solved exactly as therein indicated. Whereas, to the earlier psychologists, an image or idea was a kind of phantom, without definite seat, existing "within the soul", differing from perception not in degree but in nature, resembling it "at most only as a portrait resembles its original", to physiological psychology, on the contrary, there is between perception and image identity of nature, identity of seat, and only a difference of degree. The image is not a photograph but a revival of the sensorial and motory elements that have built up the perception. In proportion as its intensity increases, it approaches more and more to the condition of its origination, and so tends to become an hallucination. 96
Such a passage clearly invites attack. Its assumption that sensations and images are located in the brain might be challenged;

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might the assertion that there is only a difference of degree between perception and image. But that is not the point. The point is whether, in virtue of the alleged connections between mental imagery and perception, muscular activity plays the same part in both. Now in perception, muscular activity is concomitant with the perceiving. If the perception consists in my feeling the quality of a rug by rubbing my hand over it, the muscular activity bringing about the hand movement and the tactile sensations are concomitant. The theory that voluntary attention works through control of our muscular activity only makes sense on the assumption that perception and muscular activity are simultaneous. Unfortunately Ribot has not established that the connection, if any, between mental imagery and muscular activity likewise involves simultaneous occurrence. To make matters worse, the examples he gives suggest that on his view the muscular activity is subsequent to the existence of the image! He cites the examples of 'people who plunge head foremost into yawning chasms, through fear of falling into them' and of 'people who cut themselves with razors, through the very fear of cutting themselves'. Now these seem to me very bad examples indeed, for it can be debated whether any image need be present at all in the case of such fears, and furthermore if a person does throw himself from a height as a result of having the image of throwing himself from a height, the muscular activity bringing about the fall must occur after the image had occurred. Thus even if we grant Ribot his 'motory element' in imagery, this by itself does not establish that image and muscular activity are concurrent, and yet this step is crucial to his argument. Unless that can be demonstrated, it cannot be maintained that attention works through muscular activity in reflection, as it does in perception. It must be said that Ribot's argument simply fails. I shall, therefore, try to rescue his position by offering what I hope are better arguments for it.

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Footnotes

96. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, pp. 53-4.
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