mind, matter, meaning and information


A colleague recently stayed overnight with friends, and arose early in the morning to use the toilet. The guest room is on the ground floor, while the toilet and his hosts' bedroom are adjacent, on the first floor. There is a turn in the stairs, and as he came around it, he caught sight of someone entering the bedroom. It was just a glimpse, and a rear view, but the form was undoubtedly female. This “brief encounter” later stimulated some discussion about sexual attraction.

The view might be taken that to find someone sexually stimulating is just to become aroused on paying attention to them. That, however, is rather a detached view of the phenomenon, and fails dismally to capture the experience. The person usually tends to seem somehow special, generally desirable, appealing to various senses: sexy.

We often feel attracted to someone without knowing exactly why. In fact, the immediate cause of arousal lies within the person being aroused; it is a sort of switch, that is “turned on” by something in the environment (or the imagination). The perception of something as special is a result, not a cause, of arousal; what is special is not the stimulus—in this case, just a visual image, some coloured shapes—but the response to it. To help clarify what is going on here, the words “subject,” “object” and “projection” below will each carry a rather particular meaning.

At the most fundamental level, perception seems to require the presence of two elements: that which perceives, and that which is perceived; the subject and object, respectively. You are a subject; anything of which you are aware is an object.

The word “object” is used here in a relatively technical sense: the most abstract of concepts and the most subtle of feelings can as readily be objects of perception as can the shape of these letters. Concepts and feelings may be thought of as “internal” objects, and marks on paper or a screen as “external” ones. It is generally valid to consider matter, or the physical universe, to be the set of all actual or potential external objects (where the latter are actual physical things that might or might not ever be observed).

A useful way of thinking of certain psychological phenomena is as the “projection” of one (internal) object upon another (usually external) one. Instead of being perceived independently, the objects are merged so that the one projected affects in some way the perception of the other.

There is a gimmick involving literal projection that is sometimes employed by photographers. A pale-skinned and fair-haired model is placed under little or no lighting against a dark background, and an ordinary slide projector used to overlay a pattern of some sort on the skin. In the resulting photograph the model seems to take on some of the qualities of the object depicted in the projected transparency; for instance where there is a plain surface, perhaps of wood or stone, the human body takes on its colour and texture. It is most effective if a certain arrangement involving a “half-silvered mirror” is used to align the axis of the camera with that of the projector so that the camera is looking down the beam of light, to eliminate shadows. In terms of the optical effect, camera and projector are combined. In the case of metaphorical projection, if the subject is conscious of an internal object, it cannot be projected: simply because, if it is recognised as an object in itself, then it is not part of another object. [note 1] Attractiveness is the image on the slide, the internal object, while the model corresponds to what is being seen as attractive, the external object. [note 2]

The metaphor is obviously imperfect: in literal projection the transparency is not conjured into existence by the screen. Also, an actual transparency does not cease to be projected when we know how the scene was created; but your perception does change in a corresponding way, when you realise that you are viewing a photograph not of a sculpture, for instance, but of a living person illuminated by an image of stone.

In the case of sexiness, the object playing the part of the projection screen (e.g. the model) stimulates sexual arousal, in other words turns on the relevant switch. The stimulating aspect may be something you have learned to associate with sex, or evolution may have determined that it should be arousing. Either way, the object seems to have a special quality, a metaphorical glow, that is not, in objective terms, a quality of the thing itself, but rather of your reaction to it. It is due to the fact that a change in your level of arousal is experienced as being associated with the amount of attention you pay to the thing—it varies, for instance, as your gaze wanders back and forth. Instead of projected and screen objects and this link between them being separately identified, the projected object and the link are unconscious, the internal object merged with the external one so that the latter comes to seem special; the feeling becomes a quality of the sight. Sexiness, like beauty, is in the eye (and other organs) of the beholder.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .