Moving forward with PLoS ONE – further evidence of a connection between abstract thinking and visual processing of scenes

I’ve just discovered that a study that was published last year in a major peer-reviewed science journal appears to support a theory that I thought of a long time ago, and I have also discovered that an element of this phenomenon that I have observed has a proper scientific name; “vection”. I first learned of the concept of vection while reading an article by Roger Highfield in the February 19th 2011 edition of New Scientist magazine. I have already briefly mentioned the idea of mine in an earlier post in this blog. My theory is based on the observation that the moving scenery that I unavoidably see while I am driving a vehicle appears to free up my mind like some magical brand of mental lubricant, with the effect that novel and original ideas come to me at an extraordinary rate, and I see connections and possible connections between things that I don’t think I’d ever create or grasp while doing any other activity. My theory is that the moving scenery taken into my mind visually creates the subjective sensation of moving forward (forward vection), and the forward vection somehow brings about a change in the way my brain operates so that the existing abundance of connectivity in my synaesthete brain is opened up to an even greater degree. This opening up is not a free-for-all. It does not result in mental chaos with rampant synaesthesia such as an assault of noisy vision or brightly coloured sounds. This opening up specifically seems to involve conceptual and language-related thinking, thinking at a level of cognition that is more sophisticated and abstract than sensory stuff.

I love the choice of words for the title of the PLoS ONE paper: “The meandering mind”. Meandering is the perfect word to describe the way my mind behaves while I am driving, or travelling a passenger in a moving vehicle watching the scenery flowing past. It is a mind that is paradoxically free to wander but is also paying attention to the important task of driving safely. What did the study reported in this journal find? I quote from the abstract:

“Participants performed a mundane vigilance task, during which they were expected to daydream, while viewing a display that elicited an illusion of self-motion (i.e., vection). Afterwards, the contents of their mind wandering experiences were probed. The results revealed that the direction of apparent motion influenced the temporal focus of mental time travel. While backward vection prompted thinking about the past, forward vection triggered a preponderance of future-oriented thoughts.”

So, this study’s finding appear to support the proposition that “higher cognitive activity can have a sensory-motor grounding”. This idea is completely in accord with many of the psychological/neurological experiences that I have reported in this blog, including the connections in my mind between concepts and visual scenes that act like illustrations for those concepts, and which can in some instances evoke thinking about its specific associated concept when viewed, and also including the apparent influence that forward vection has on certain characteristics of my thinking. I am amazed by the number of conceptual connections that I have discovered among my synaesthesia-related experiences, and also connections between these experiences and ideas and studies described in recently published journal papers. Connections everywhere! Just like my brain!

If you have been reading by blog posts about the links in my mind between concepts and scenes, you will not be surprised that my mind has a particular scene that is evoked in my mind’s eye when I think about the concept of forward vection freeing up the mind. It is a scene of a winding road that I often drive along, as seen from a driver’s seat. This particular stretch of road has a lot of shrubbery along the side of the road, which enhances the subjective visual sensation of moving forward.

I’ve got to wonder whether the Prime Minister Julia Gillard might have read this paper in PLoS ONE before she thought up her election catch-phrase “moving forward”. Perhaps she was hoping to evoke the sensation of forward vection by repeating her slogan over and over, unconsciously directing voters to consider the future rather than past deeds. Maybe in the next election we might see political advertisements utilizing scenes of travelling forward or backward in a moving vehicle, depending on whether the party wishes to direct the attention of voters to the future or the past. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

References

Highfield, Roger Days of wonder. New Scientist. February 19th 2011 Number 2800. p.34-41. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928001.400-your-kitchen-sink-and-16-other-wonders-of-the-cosmos.html

Miles LK, Karpinska K, Lumsden J, Macrae CN The Meandering Mind: Vection and Mental Time Travel. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010825 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0010825

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