The Refrigerator Light Illusion and a Mindfulness Tool
Is your refrigerator light on when the door is closed? How can you ever know? Perhaps consciousness works in the same way. Are you conscious when you're not specifically noticing it? How can you ever know?
Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES)
DES is a method for analysing our ability to report our own mental states.1 The subject receives an alert at a random interval and is asked to report on the contents of their conscious experience at the time of the alert (or immediately before if that makes more sense to you). Since you started reading this post you have probably been a little more aware of your conscious experience than usual. It's hard to remember what it was like before you became aware. The idea behind the random alert is that it will occur while you're not primed to be more aware of your experience. You can get a better feeling for the exact contents of your experience in everyday situations.
I've created an online DES alerter, though I'm not sure how well it will work across platforms. To test it, the button below should (after 2 seconds) create an alert in this window. Hopefully it will also refocus the window if you were doing something else at the time, allowing you to leave the experiment running in the background.
The next button is the real experiment. It will start a process that at every second has a very low chance of setting off an alert. This means that it does not make sense to think that 'it hasn't gone off for a while so it will do soon', but still it can be almost guaranteed to go off over a longer period of time.
Choose the setting that best fits how long you'll be spending at the computer. The very fast may not leave enough time to have forgotten about the experiment. The slow setting is intended to be left running all day. It has around a 5% chance to not even alert once in the first 8 hours. The experiment continues as long as the page is left open (or it's turned off). It doesn't stop after the first alert.
Whenever the alert goes off, immediately try to determine what the contents of your conscious experience were just before you were reminded. It is interesting to ask questions such as:
How big was my visual field? You may be surprised at how variable this can be.
How determinate were the contents of my visual field?
Was I aware of any sounds? If so, how clear were they?
In contrast, how many sounds would I have been aware of if I was purposefully trying to pay attention to them all?
Was I experiencing any tactile sensations? It is interesting to compare these sensations (if any) to those that become apparent just after the alert and those that are still not apparent but readily available.
Was I experiencing inner thoughts? If so, how many at once? In what form did they appear?
...and my favourite...
Was there an experiencer of the experience? If so, where was this experiencer, and what role were they playing? Was this experiencer the same thing you identify with as your self?
The experiment works best if, every time the alert goes off, you immediately try to determine the exact contents of your conscious experience. The question is not 'what were you doing?', but 'what exactly were the contents of your actual experience?'.
This kind of task is not just interesting in relation to the refrigerator problem and consciousness. It can be used as a mindfulness tool. Each time there is an alert can be used to check in on how mindful you were and act as a reminder to be more aware of your unfolding experience of the world.
What you cannot find
Of course, this experiment does not actually solve the refrigerator problem. It's like trying to catch out the refrigerator light by slowly walking away whistling nonchalantly, perhaps saying out loud that you're just about to head out of the house, only to spin around and check it when it's least expecting it.
It cannot determine if there is real conscious experience just before the alert, or even what it was like. It may be that the experience is constructed upon seeing the alert, to create a consistent history and fill in the gaps. However, the process can still be enlightening.
What you might find
A refrigerator light switch
I remember exploring the refrigerator light illusion when I was younger. I had not thought about consciousness at the time, but I was intrigued by how the fridge might 'know' that the door was closed and whether or not the light actually did turn off. I didn't quite manage to fit fully inside the fridge and close the door. Fortunately, at the time it was standard to have a switch like the one shown on the right, which I eventually found. I was very satisfied with myself. While we cannot determine exactly what happens when we're not paying attention, we can potentially form better hypotheses about what might be going on, just as I did when I found the switch.
What I found
I've been messing around with the DES test all week, but only in short bursts, and without writing down my experiences. I'll post again in a few weeks, once I've recorded some properly. However, here are my initial observations.
When I was alerted while focused on reading or writing, my experience seemed be of a clear (much clearer than I expected it to be) formulation of the current word I was attending to. This was either visual, through inner speech, typing sounds, or (most commonly) a combination of the preceding. There was little beyond this focus that I could be confident was actually in my experience. The surrounding visual field was not necessarily there, and if it was, was very vague. It was surprising to me just how little beyond a single word seemed to be contained in that moment of experience. Even the preceding word was incredibly vague in comparison.
At other times my experience seemed mostly as normal (with normal being when I'm specifically noticing it), with a visual field focussed strongly on the current objects of interest, but with the less focussed areas still vaguely appearing, and with any relatively constant background sounds and tactile sensations filtered out. A few times I did experience a feeling that there was almost nothing to my experience at that point. This occurred when transitioning between tasks, such as putting down a paper I'd just finished and returning to do something on my computer screen. However, it is hard to say how accurate this report is. The alert feels like it makes a whole host of phenomena suddenly rush back into experience. I may be just interpreting this feeling of a difference before and after to imply non-existence where it is more a case of 'comparatively indeterminate'.
I'm not very comfortable with the accuracy or legitimacy of these first few trials and have very low confidence in my reports. It is a very hard task to say anything definitive at all. These feel more like reports of how well I can recall the previous moment and its hard to tell confabulation from reality. I'll wait until I've been running the experiment for a few weeks before I comment further. However, I will say that the experiment has already provided me with some interesting experiences and thoughts, including in relation to the questions in the last bullet point of the list above.
1. I came across DES in Eric Schwitzgebel's work, where it is used to analyse the accuracy of our introspective reports. Eric's webpage is really worth checking out. It contains links to a discussion on introspection with Dennett which I found to be a really nice example of a philosophical dispute done right. I plan to write about the accuracy of introspection in a future post.