Perception in 4 Dimensions

This will be a bit of a throw-away post as I really should be working on other things right now, but I had to jot down some notes while these ideas are still fresh. I’ve been thinking of ways to integrate the different accounts of perception I’ve been studying as of late, and the phrase “perception in 4 dimensions” dropped into my head.

I think a good term for a perspective is as important as the content of the perspective itself, and perceiving in 4D has been wringing in my head since last night. On the face of it, there’s nothing exciting about perceiving in 4D. It’s what you’d expect from a creature such as ourselves, orienteering around the world along three spatial axes and an additional temporal one.

But I’ve been thinking about the phrase in a different way.

I think proper 4D orienteering must include something like Bergson’s intuition about duration. The idea in this context would be that living beings don’t just move through time and space but in some sense accumulate or become organized through their successive actions and endeavors. Time is a cumulative repetition captured in the ongoing transformations of the organism through its lifespan and across the contexts it finds itself in. It’s not an abstract ideal or an empty space.

I haven’t thought this through too deeply, but duration in this sense is an integrative fact that unites cognition, perception, and embodiment. Duration also connects the organism’s engagement with its environment, both in the sense of the ongoing work required to get a world to show up (through the energetic resources required to keep it going), and in the sense that the lifeform outsources its cognitive and perceptual needs to artifacts (built and natural) in that ecology.

Consider also the case of perceptual learning, a view that suggests an intimate link between practices, behaviors, and the organization of the sensory modalities of the perceptual system. If something like genuine perceptual learning is true—i.e., that learning constitutes changes that are actually perceptual, rather than changes merely indicative of shifting after-the-fact inferences about the sensory system’s deliverences—then a concept like duration can again provide a helpful integrating function.

So, the quick and dirty rub is that perception in 4 dimensions isn’t simply the observation that lifeforms operate along four axes of possible action (a Newtonian view of organisms if ever there was one), but that any real account of perception acknowledges that duration is an integrative function wherein enaction, extended cognition, feeling, and perceptual learning all come together in and as the transformation of the lifeform.


  1. why time/duration vs something like repetition/consistency of the organism/environs interactions and more importantly why aren’t the interests of the organism the focal/integrative aspects?


    • What I mean by duration is something like “repetition/consistency of the organism/environs interactions.” I’m not so attached to the specific words here.

      I think the interests of the organism are crucial, but I think with a concept like duration we start to get out how interests *accrue* as factors that re-organize the organism.

      And with lifeforms like ourselves, our interests can vary widely and so learning to direct those interests through attention—so as to encourage different kinds of reorganization—is crucial.


  2. This is a simple insight but seems worthy of pondering. When I consider my mother and her Alzheimers type dementia, *duration,* in exactly the sense you describe, is like the missing element of the way her consciousness is configured; it does not “accumulate or become organized through successive actions and endeavors.” Her attention span is a matter of seconds, so she lives in a sequence of very short moments that are actually disconnected from each other, though she maintains, I think, the illusion that the moments are connected. Among other things that means she no longer has practices in any recognizable sense. Objects in the environment retain scattered significance; she relates to objects still; but practices have been supplanted to some extent by little obsessive behaviors that have persistence but no duration. When she first moved in with us her job was to set the table for dinner. Now whenever she sees dishes (e.g. if the dishwasher is open because we are loading or emptying it, no matter what time of day it is) she will try to take the dishes to set the table. After we have dinner she wants to lay out the place mats again and set the table with dirty dishes she has wiped off with a napkin. People tend to think of Alzheimers as a problem with memory but memory as one usually thinks of it – the ability to recall the past in a sequence of pictures – is not the primary problem; a person with amnesia could still navigate the world. The primary problem is with duration and the connection of one moment and set of actions and predispositions to the next; the links and distinctions between say before, during, and after dinner. Having dinner is a practice that can organize us only if we retain contact with duration.


    • This sounds like such a difficult experience to go through, Claire. Thanks for sharing. And I think you’re onto something—it’s precisely duration, rather than simply memory, that seems to go missing (or at least gets interrupted) with Alzheimer’s. There’s lots to think about here.


      • maybe yer not saying this but I doubt if there is some kind of super/supra function at work in human-being vs the co-operations of many functions/systems


  3. I wonder if the sense of “duration” is a condition for perception of something as such. It seems to me that the instant the sense of duration is questioned, we immediately do a double-take. I am thinking of the visual field, for instance, which is fully of anomalies that are constantly vetted by an appeal to the sense of duration.


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