I will work to better understand my brain. Where else to put this extremely personal thought but the internet? But really. Over the last few weeks I keep experiencing all these strange sensations of color. Most of the people around me have at least one color that I don’t see around…
This is wonderful. Let me attempt to explain the towel phenomenon using what cognitive science knows today, barring any philosophical questions as to the individual perception and meaning of color.
Retrieval of memories is generally categorized into two categories: semantic and episodic. This is related to but on the whole a different system from the storage of memory. While the hippocampus lights up during the storage of memory, the retrieval of memory has more to do with the cerebellum and two concentrated regions of the prefrontal cortex, one in each hemisphere. One is devoted to semantic recollection; the other to episodic. Indications of repeated activity in one region when none is expected is evidence that the semantic and episodic memory systems have overlap and aren’t mutually exclusive.
Now, on to the color thing. Your mind wanted a meaning to attribute to that scent of the towel regardless of whether you consciously demanded a meaning. One of the first meanings that is sought after is past experience with this scent and an object. If you can match this smell to something you’ve experienced before, your brain will retrieve the concept of whatever you smelled before. However, towels smell the same, and you’ve likely smelled more than one towel before in your lifetime. Therefore, there is no singular input-output connection: the input of olfactory information yields multiple visual and conceptual outputs — different colored towels, different sizes, etc. But what is the common denominator of these relations? What makes these different towels still considered as ‘towels’? It’s their rectangular shape, function as an absorbent material, and fluffy texture.
Now semantic memory recollection steps in. The recollection now is of the idea of a towel — the conglomerate common elements of all towels your brain has ever wanted to remember. But this has to manifest into some sort of sensory information if you are to comprehend the meaning. In your mind’s search for a particular towel — no matter conscious or subconscious — it needed, well, particulars. So the brain had an incomplete model for your towel: fluffiness, geometric shape, and function. What does it look like, though? Rectangular… and that’s about it. More is necessary if a particular image and not just a concept is to be brought forth. You need a color, and the relative shading of that color based on the lighting and curvature of the towel.
So a color needs to be found. Your mind might already have the color in its manifestation of the concept of ‘towel’ as a sort of light blue because your mind mixed together all the colors of towels rather than simply cast them off as extraneous, unique characteristics. The light blue might be like the median color; the best estimate when it comes to determining color. However, the color may as previously mentioned be exempt from the manifestation of the concept of ‘towel’ because the greater set of ‘towel’ had way too many colors to be worth your brain’s while to mix them together. Coloring may be lacking still.
There’s a color vacuum. What can be done? Well, the two systems of working memory and semantic memory can put their heads together to provide some data. Working memory refers, of course, to memory that has recently been processed and is ‘on the mind.’ The color of light blue might be in your working memory, and because your brain is always looking for correlations between stimuli, the working memory may think that the light blue color has something to do with every little thing you do. So it brings up the light blue color to the model provided by the semantic memory and voila: the image of a light blue colored towel is rendered.
In conclusion, one of the following has happened:
- Your brain has really only ever paid attention to light blue towels and so any time the image of a towel is to be retrieved the only information your brain has is of light blue towels.
- Your semantic concept of ‘towel’ includes a blending and standardization of all the colors you have perceived from towels which has yielded a neutral color, in this case light blue.
- Your semantic concept of ‘towel’ lacked the blending and standardization of those colors and didn’t have any reasonable color estimate at all, leaving the working memory to jump in and try to make the light blue color of something else relevant to your present searching for information.
I love you, John, and anyone who actually read this. If tl;dr then look at my summary above.