The moment I knew I was experiencing something extraordinary

When I woke up from my brain surgery, there was something in front of me that was confusing.  It looked like it might be a  face, but there was something off about it. I found myself trying to figure out this mystery.  I started looking at the individual features of this thing in front of me.  Eventually I realized that I was indeed looking at the face of an OR nurse who looked strange because she had a surgical mask pulled down underneath her face.  Her face looked strange to me because it had an extra component that was unexpected. In that moment, I realized I was watching my brain using bottom up processing to compensate for some jacked top down processing and that I was literally watching my brain work, consciously watching my brain actively processing.  MIND BLOWN. No pun intended.

As a psychologist, a scientist, and a n academic, this is pretty freaking cool. I also know it isn’t normal at  all.

For those of you not familiar with human cognition and information processing or those of you that took Intro to Psych so long ago you’ve just forgotten, our brains process information via top down and bottom up processing simultaneously and automatically without us having to consciously do anything necessarily.  Top down processing is how we apply meaning to the world around us based on our expectations and experiences.  It happens without us really knowing about it.  All the visual stimuli you see, lines, colors, shapes, etc. become objects you recognize through your top down processing.  This allows us to see the Gestalt or big picture, as opposed to just a bunch of lines and dots and meaningless things.  On the other hand, bottom up processing is the interpretation of your visual field based on each individual feature that you see.   Taking the face as an example, with top down processing, we automatically recognize a face because we are already wired to.  But my wiring was wacky and so I wasn’t automatically recognizing the face in front of me.  I watched my brain actively switch to bottom up processing and I started analyzing the image in front of me, the two eyes, the nose, the shape, and finally the chin, which then had the mask underneath it.  Once I was able to recognize the mask was a separate entity, I was able to recognize the face for what it was.

This also manifested itself in me really being grounded by a standard wall clock.  I knew exactly what it was supposed to look like, so if it looked different for some reason, like for instance when the 2 and 3 were right next to each other at one point, I knew this was just my perception being wonky.  I knew it wasn’t reality.  However if I was looking at the counter and saw two cups, I didn’t necessarily know if there were two cups in reality or I was seeing double vision.  Conversely I had a really hard time with balloons for the first couple of days.  Balloons don’t have a standard, expected shape.  They come in different sizes and shapes, and different numbers of balloons in bunches.  They are also floating, so they aren’t necessarily at the same height.  I had to have all balloons removed from my field of view because they confused me, especially in the middle of the night when I woke up. So clock yay and balloons no way for the first week after surgery.

I have continued to see my brain compensating for the mismatch of information coming from the bottom up processing based on my wonky left eye and the lack of expectations that come from my wonky top down processing.  It is fascinating.  There doesn’t seem to be an actual word for this.  Every word I can find related to cognition is a noun.  I spent sometime looking up Latin and Greek roots last night and decided I need to come up with my own word for consciously watching my own brain actively process. I have already gotten some feedback from some smart people but I welcome additional thoughts on this particular issue. It needs to be a  verb, not a noun.  Thoughts?



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