Mary’s Room: The Clash Between Psychoanalysis And Neuroscience

A thought experiment may solve the dichotomy between neuroscience and psychoanalysis by questioning the center of its enigma: the conscious body.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mary lives in the Twilight Zone. In an achromatic room, this imagined neuroscientist learns about the physical entities of color, such as their physics and biological basis, but has yet to perceive it with her own eyes. This thought experiment provokes a question: if Mary steps outside and sees a red apple, will she have learned anything more?

Initially, the thought experiment, proposed by philosopher Frank Jackson, affirmed that she would. In doing so, it concluded that there is a quality of color division beyond its physical description. That missing quality was her qualia, or her subjective personal experience, when she ventured outside.

Qualia dominated the psychiatric field through psychoanalysis, a theory that focuses on the unconscious in mental disorders. Philosopher Sigmund Freud developed a theory of the human psyche, where he proposed that the unconscious mind is the sole driver of all cognitive processes, including that of consciousness. Family structure, past traumas, or forgotten abuse became the unforeseen determinant of the stable mind, thus disregarding most biological causes of mental disorders. Dating back to Descartes's axiom "I think, therefore I am," the mind and the body (or brain) were seen with different states. To Descartes, both were distinct, as he could doubt his body but not his mind. However, pharmaceuticals began to treat mental illness by the end of the 1980s, and the brain received the status of the mind. A split in Freudian theory arose: reductionism, a new mirage of psychiatry that reduced the distinction between the mind and body, made them identical.

In turn, the Mary’s Room experiment was used to argue against the reductive basis by claiming that identical states must have the same properties, supporting the idea that the mind and body were not one. Reductionism equated mental states, like consciousness and behavior, with brain states, such as empirical evidence of brain activity and hormones. One way to understand the connection is to see how our perception and consciousness argue against this dualism.

Our senses are one of the best understood physical perceptions. Though the perception of sight is subjective, as you cannot see through the eyes of another, there is an objective medical basis for the processing of visual input, which goes through the retina cones down to the optical nerve that transmits information into color. Even if the same stimuli are transmitted to the brain however, our mind comprehends them in different ways, sometimes by invoking a different sensory process to an unparalleled sensory input. This is known as synesthesia, or the intermixing of communication in the brain between the senses. Stimulation of one sense leads to an involuntary and automatic experience in another sense, where some feel what they smell or see what they hear, for instance.

Though it seems supernatural, we all experience synesthesia to different degrees. For example, in the question proposed by neuroscientist Lawrence Marks, “Which is lighter: a sneeze or a cough?,” roughly 95 percent said that a sneeze was perceived with brighter intensity. Yet, how did individuals with different subjective consciousness perceive a similar conclusion?

It is because certain properties of our senses, like color intensity, do not only rely on our perception. In one test, Ramachandran and Hubbard folded a white card with a gray number on each side. One side was brightly lit while the other was in a shadow. Though the physical luminance was radically different on the two sloping sides of the card, their perceived reflectance was identical because the brain took account of this diminished luminance and subtracted the intensity of the brighter-lit right. However, the color saturation looked grossly different due to the difference in actual physical contrast, not perceived contrast. Thus, a dependence on physical contrast, not the perceived contrast, is also important in the vividness of color.

In many ways, this simple test speaks depths to the nature of qualia and how it is also not out of grasp to the physical brain state. Our brain neurons can create degrees of experiences that depend both on perception and physical quality, suggesting that qualia has a probable objective basis. A likely prediction is that the apple would seem gray to Mary due to being in the room for too long. Even without subjective qualia, Mary would pick the red apple if contrasted by a pure gray apple, much like a colorblind patient with synesthesia. In this case, Mary did not learn something about reddish hues because though her qualia could not solely distinguish between different color hues, her physical brain could. If she possessed her qualia, the difference would be physical, except on a scale that arguably would not be within Mary's initial scope of awareness.

To understand why, consider artificial intelligence (AI). If you wire up AI to compute the same kinds of information that Mary can, you assume that it has Mary’s capabilities. If this AI resided in a body cloned from Mary, even Mary herself could not assert a difference, unless the environment changed. Suddenly a physical process, like color perception (which was not possible in the black-and-white world), appears miraculously. However, if the scenario was changed and the AI was subjected to color while Mary wasn’t, the validity of what defines Mary would be debatable. No matter which case you consider, both the clone and Mary learn something new when they observe color, but not through consciousness. Rather, it is similar to the difference between a dead wire and the same wire juiced with electricity.

Similar to how Mary’s room delves into the extent to which knowledge can enable perception, many have attempted to revisit the argument that consciousness can be thoroughly studied through physical sciences. More psychoanalysts have begun to investigate basic neuroscience as well as how it can relate the mind of the reader with the hand they are holding the book with. As reductionist philosophy is the dominant form, the lack of discussion on the integration of objective accounts of reality to subjective one may very well be ignoring the red apple Mary saw for a monochrome answer in a dark room.