Ancient algorithms in my contemporary world
Sometimes, late into the night when I enter my bedroom, I find it plunged pitch-black in total darkness. The experience is rather delightful. The sense of space suddenly disappears. I don’t know what’s ahead, above, sideways, or below. I just know I am there but I can’t see anything about myself either. From within my body I can feel my hands and limbs moving without being able to see them move, and I bring all my attention to my movements, warily observing if I touch, bump, or brush against something in this abyss.
The only orientation I can deduce initially, is the sense of my standing upright, thanks to the constant pull of gravity I feel through the soles of my feet and across the various postures of my body. If I don’t feel my head being pulled down and my entire body pushing it further down behind it, then I must not be falling down. It’s really that simple.
I pause to appreciate all the vibrant colors that cover every surface in my bedroom are no longer available to my brain to recognize. The color-cones within my eyes capture nothing. The subtle play of lights and shadows, which helps my mind perceive depth and distance around me is also gone. The rods within my eyes capture no ‘concurrent monotone textures’ with which I understand 3D and spatial distances. In fact, there is not even enough ambient light for me to at least see objects where ‘color constancy’ has drained all sense of color from their surfaces. Finally, I can’t even see any sillhouettes of my bed, chairs, tables, jutting into the darkness. My mind cognizes no shapes. As I said, it’s all pitch-black.
Well, nearly. The only things my eyes see, are pinpoints of three to four lights. These are the standby lights emitting from the LEDs of my gear. The TV’s red-colored standby light. The Home Theater System’s standby Red light, the TV set-top box’s amber-green light. Up above on the side, the AC unit’s neon-blue light, and in another area, a larger red-dot from the AC’s stabilizer. All these small dots of colored light, look like starlight to my mind depraved of all sense of dimension and space. Interestingly, the color from these LED dots, is sensed by the cones in my eyes, and apart from each one’s inherent shape as a dot or a small-circle, my brain picks up no other shape. As far as my mind is concerned, these could be star-light that travelled millions of years ago, from exotic stars, millions of light-years away on a night horizon.
Within a few moments, I marvel at how my mind auto-magically rummages through its couldron of experiences and memories, of how it has cognized the room’s dimensions and spaces during normal daylight or artificial light moments. My mind draws a mental map as it were, of the entire room, and overlaps it in 3D over those pinpoints of LED lights. It then orients my position, and lets me ‘know’ I am five steps to the right of my bed, after I make a subtle swaying movement to dodge a table-edge jutting out on the right. I thus navigate myself through various obstacles, literally on an invisible path, safely to my bed, using nothing but nearly dimensionless points of light.
As I rest my head on my pillow, I always wonder at the ancient antecedents of this algorithm in my mind. It must be buried somewhere, deep in our collective consciousness, used by ancient travellers navigating their way across the shifting and rolling landscapes of deserts or vast oceans, using nothing but stars to point them to their destinations. Thankfully, no ancient traveller lived for hundreds of thousands of years to observe the gradual shifting of the night-horizon. Thus, those stars were the most permanent navigation points, in an impermanent and ever-changing land or seascape. But, the ‘LED stars’ in my bedroom can be hacked. If someone were to move my gear around a bit, and I were to enter the room without prior knowledge of this, would I stumble through the room? With each bump and knock, how hastily would my mind create a new version of object-placement and my orientation in the room?
As I slowly drift into the inner darkness of sleep, I can only wonder: The accuracy of the mind’s navigation-map has to be sensitively appreciated as well. To test it, I have often shut my eyes tight and moved through the physical space in my room, guided only by the mental space conjured by the mind. It works flawlessly. Static shape dissolves into fluid motion, and the pillow under my head reminds the mind to unravel and repose in its secrets far away from my conscious self.