The Role of Cognitive Penetration

Listening to music can be considered as a process that impinges upon innate mechanisms of coping with the sounds. Some of them act as lock-and-key and are likely to be induced by the music in a direct way. The human brain, however, is able to transcend its wired-in and reactive circuitry in order to build up new epistemic relations with its environment (Cariani, 2001, 2003; Reybrouck, 2005a). Understanding musical structures with at least some complexity, for example, is not to be explained merely in terms of mere reactive machinery, but relies on higher levels of nervous activity that can determine the perceptual outcome and cognitive functioning as well. To quote Damasio:

The evidence on biological regulation demonstrates that response selections of which organisms are not conscious and are thus not deliberated take place continuously in evolu-tionarily old brain structures. Organisms whose brains only include those archaic structures and are avoid of evolutionarily modern ones—reptiles, for instance—operate such response selections without difficulty. One might conceptualise the response selections as an elementary form of decision making, provided it is clear that it is not an aware self but a set of neural circuits that is doing the deciding. ... Yet it is also well accepted that when social organisms are confronted by complex situations and are asked to decide in the face of uncertainty, they must engage systems in the neocortex, the evolutionarily modern sector of the brain. (1994, p. 127)

As soon as environments are getting more unpredictable and complex, however, the organism must not only rely on highly evolved genetically based biological mechanisms but also on suprainstinctual survival strategies that have developed in society and are transmitted by culture. The latter, as a rule, require consciousness, reasoned deliberation and willpower with response selections that are no longer reducible to the functioning of a set of neural circuits in the older structures of the brain.

Many perceptual phenomena, in this view, are cognitively penetrated, which means that the determination of the perceptual response depends on factors beyond the raw physical attributes of the stimulus (Uttal, 1998, p. 3). This holds true for perception in general, which is not to be explained merely in reductionist terms, which try to peripheralise the explanation of perception by locating the critical locus of perceptual experience in the earliest or lowest level of the sensory pathways. As Uttal puts it, there is simply no causal relation between sensory input and cognitive processing and resultant reactive behaviour: 'stimuli do not lead solely and inexorably to responses by simple switching circuit-like behaviour'. And further: 'The main point is that "cognitive penetration" plays a very much more important role in perception than is often acknowledged, in particularly by those who seek to show the neural correlates of some psychophysical response. The ubiquity of cognitive penetration argues strongly that neuroreductionist strategies attributing perceptual experience to a few peripheral neurones will be hard to justify' (1998, p. 213).

The only exception to these claims has been the centuries old trichotomy of the sensory-transformational-response mechanism with a grouping of cognitive processes into three classes: input, output and central transformation. There is, however, no convergence on a more detailed taxonomy (Uttal, 2001, p. 145-147).

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