The Efference Copy Paper

Here is the paper I wrote while doing a little bit of research on efference copies. Each sentence was restricted to fewer than 17 words. While trying to stay under the limit makes for slow going, it’s a rewarding exercise. The sentences end up sounding a bit simple, but the primary purpose of any paper is to be understood. After that, you can worry about trying to dazzle a reader with your insights (or confuse them into believing you have any).

Efference and Objectification

Perception begins with bugs. Spiders, praying mantises, and bees have all demonstrated the ability to perceive the world around them.[1] This is impressive. It prods us to reconsider which species have perceptual capabilities similar to our own. Yet, there remains a high standard of proof for attributing perception. The existence of efference copies in simple organisms appears to be evidence of perceptual ability. If this is correct, types of worms and slugs will be granted perception. Close examination suggests this conclusion is misguided. The existence of efference copies alone is not a sufficient mark of perception.

We check if organisms have perception by seeing if they exhibit perceptual constancies. A perceptual constancy is an ability. Imagine I have a red water bottle. The top half is in sunlight, while the other half is in shade. Therefore, the top appears a light red, while the bottom looks darker. The human visual system attributes the same shade of red to the entire bottle. This happens despite it looking like it is two different shades of red. The ability to do this is a perceptual constancy. The visual system can attribute the same redness despite different kinds of light hitting the eye. This light is called the “proximal stimulus” and is registered the moment it strikes retinal sensors. For example, the two halves of the bottle cause different registrations of proximal stimulus. In realizing a perceptual constancy, the visual system also engages in “objectification.”[2] It picks out elements in the proximal stimulus relevant to the object. It also ignores elements specific to its perspective of the object. In terms of the example, the visual system did two things in exercising objectification. First, it identified which parts of the registered stimulus were due to the bottle’s redness. Second, it discarded parts caused by circumstantial factors like shade and perspective.

Using the new vocabulary, an explanation of perceptual constancies takes shape. A perceptual constancy is the ability to represent accurately despite variation in registrations of proximal stimulus. The thing represented can be a particular or an attribute.[3] Objectification also happens if and only if there are perceptual constancies. Therefore, it is a reliable indicator of perceptual constancies, and thus perception.[4]

Some maintain organisms like the nematode worm exhibit objectification, as evidenced through efference copies. Efference copies arise to handle conflicting behavior associated with sensory input. When tactile sensors in the head of the worm are stimulated, it moves backward. If similar sensors are activated in its tail, it moves forward. The result is a cruel dilemma. Moving forward stimulates its head sensors, inducing backward movement. Backward movement stimulates its tail sensors, triggering forward movement. Under these circumstances, the poor worm would be unable to move meaningfully in either direction. Fortunately, its sensory system, and those like it, has overcome the problem. Imagine the worm receives stimulus from its tail and activates the move forward reflex. To avoid the feedback loop described, the activation sends an efference copy to the sensory system. This copy functions as a report to the rest of the organism. It indicates that the worm is moving forward.[5] Therefore, any stimulation of head sensors is due to movement, not obstacles or predators. The activation of the second, move-backward reflex is then inhibited, allowing the worm to travel peacefully.

Supporters claim the worm’s sensory system discriminates between different types of proximal stimulus. Due to the efference copy, the worm “knows” further stimulus is caused by its own movement. This amounts to a type of separation between stimulus caused by distal objects versus circumstantial factors.[6] The result is to inform appropriate worm behavior. Efference copies, it seems, are evidence of objectification.

We can call what happens in the worm “objectification.” Yet, it bears little relation to the stronger kind displayed in perceptual constancies. There is a high standard for marking processes as perceptual objectification. It is set in the science of visual psychology.

Scientists explain the natural world. Good explanations implicate only what is necessary to explain the phenomena in question, and no more. Imagine frogs croaking in a pond. We can explain their croaks as plangent pleas to a wizard to retransform them into humans. This is unlikely. Nothing about the croaks suggests the presence of magic or that the frogs were once human. An explanation that doesn’t posit the existence of wizards and animal-human transmutation would suffice. Viewing the croaks as mating calls is simpler, and does the same explanatory work. It fits with our existing biological knowledge. Scientists would have to be presented with compelling circumstances to resort to the anthro-amphibian explanation. Perhaps the croaks sound like “help” and wizards were spotted in the area. Otherwise, the mating call description remains the most likely to be accurate.

Visual psychologists must settle on explanations of animal behavior. Behaviors can often be explained in terms of the proximal stimulus and an animals’ neurology. This is in contrast to explanations that implicate objectification or perception. Consider olfactory navigation by salmon. We can sufficiently explain how they traverse oceans back to their home stream. Olfactory proximal stimulus causes the neurons to fire in a certain pattern, driving accurate navigation. No reference is made to external objects or perception. This neuro-causal explanation is the simplest, and most descriptive science has to offer.[7] If science only postulates a neuro-causal explanation, objectification or perception are probably not taking place. By contrast, the science does implicate external objects in some causal explanations of behavior. In these circumstances, we can be confident objectification and perception are present.

No reference to objectification is present in the scientific explanation of nematode worm behavior. It is a neuro-causal explanation that does not implicate objects in the distal environment. The worm does not separate aspects of the proximal stimulus. Its sensory system does not distinguish which elements are perspectival. It merely reacts to the stimulus. This is true despite the presence of efference copies. They only inhibit reflexes, and have no bearing on how stimulus is processed.[8] We can, however, still maintain the worm’s actions are relevant to environmental objects. Its sensory system functions to keep it from bumping into things. This is a functional explanation of its behavior, and implicates external objects. Indeed, any behavior, perceptual or non-perceptual, can be explained functionally. Yet, we’re interested in what causes worm behavior. The science only appeals to the stimulus received in its causal explanation. There is no compelling evidence to reference external objects. This suggests efference copies alone aren’t indicators of objectification, and thus perception.

Efference copies without perception are observed in other species. Consider crayfish. While more complex than worms, they utilize efference copies in a similar way. The lower abdomens of crayfish are covered in sensitive hairs that trigger a tail-flipping escape response.[9] This leaves them susceptible to a similar type of feedback loop described above. Efference copies prevent this scenario. As self-initiated movement commences, a crayfish’s sensory system blocks signals from the hairs. The registration of stimulus does not progress far enough in the system to trigger a response.[10] Clearly, objectification is not present in this situation either. There is no evidence crayfish distinguish proximal stimulus caused by objects versus circumstantial factors. The causal explanation of crayfish behavior does not implicate objects in the world. Functionally, the crayfish is escaping predators. Yet, the behavior can be sufficiently explained with respect only to the initial proximal stimulus. Hypothetical predators need not enter the conversation. Objectification and perception are equally absent from the causal explanations of crayfish and worm behavior.

Efference copies are a fascinating biological feature. They allow species to better interact with the environment. Yet, their presence is not an indicator of perception. That capacity still begins with bugs, and seemingly not earlier.

Works Cited

Burge, Tyler. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford University Press, 2010.

—. “Perception: Where the Mind Begins.” The Royal Institute of Philosophy. 2014.


Crapse, Trinity B and Marc A Sommer. “Corollary discharge across the animal kingdom.” National Neuroscience Review (2008): 587-600.

[1]Burge, Perception: Where the Mind Begins

[2]Burge 397, Origins of Objectivity

[3]Burge 1, Perceptual Constancy

[4]Burge 2, Perceptual Constancy

[5]Crapse and Sommer

[6] Burge 11, Perceptual Constancy

[7] Burge 425, Origins of Objectivity

[8] Burge 12, Perceptual Constancy

[9] Crapse and Sommer

[10] Crapse and Sommer

Misidentification of Cliché

Note: this paper was originally submitted for Philosophy 23: Meaning and Communication taught by Sam Cumming and TA’d by Esther Nikbin. Because I’m still not over cliché and think there’s a lot more to it than what I talk about in this paper, I’m currently writing another paper that goes more into cliché’s “thought stopping” capabilities and how this can lead to moral danger, among other things.

My interest in cliché started in middle school when I thought Shakespeare was a boring author because he lacked original plot. Of course, murderous Macbeth has to be crushed under his own hubris and Romeo and Juliet are destined to be together only in the afterlife. In the media age, these clichés had made their way into the children’s books I read to the cartoons on TV, and I felt like a sucker for being told an old, old, man in England can get away with using them and even being called the greatest for doing it. I might as well have been crowned the best literary critic ever to have lived in the 7th grade if I hadn’t been criticizing the very origin of the storylines I had grown to recognize, and resent, but I’ll argue I have hundreds of years of Shakespeare imitators to blame for my misperception.

Still, the question of what is cliché and what is not remains. How is cliché different than idiom? Are all resonant expressions or ideas destined to become cliché?  The goal of this investigation is to the uncover the bounds that limit the application of the word “cliché” and differentiate it from other trite expressions that fill our language. In order to carry out this investigation, I consulted native English speakers, dictionaries, academic papers, and a book on brainwashing.

“Cliché” is not a word like “aunt” or “billionaire” that denotes a clear relationship or quantity of ownership. As a result, we are going to have to rely on less exact methods to pin down its meaning. Using to a survey I administered to (relatively few) native English speakers over the internet, a typical cliché begins to take shape. When respondents were asked to define “cliché” as they use it, several parameters were important. First, an overwhelming majority of answers invoked ideas of over-use through phrases such as “too much,” “too often,” and “too many people.” In order to qualify as a cliché to native speakers, the phrase in question must be notoriously ubiquitous in common language or in certain contexts. Examples given include phrases like “there’s plenty of fish in the sea” in situations about relationships, or captioning your old vacation photos on Instagram “take me back.” Second, speakers emphasized how clichés belie a sense of unoriginality in their users. According to one, these phrases become “cop-outs,” that are used in the English classroom to appear thoughtful without having thought. The phrases themselves are undeniably true to a fault, and consequently their use says more about the lack of knowledge of the speaker as opposed to any real understanding.

Dictionaries tend to corroborate these two main aspects of cliché, overuse and lack of real substance, gleaned from the intuitions of native English speakers. Definitions range from, “a phrase or opinion that’s overused and betrays lack of original thought,” to “a trite phrase or expression; also: the idea expressed by it,” but these definitions always invoke the two main pillars of cliché (Oxford English Dictionary; Merriam-Webster). A less authoritative source has also voiced her own opinion on cliché and defined it as “a metaphor characterized by overuse,” and even supplied her own cliché test. If you can begin a sentence, stop half-way, and then know the conclusion of it, then it is a cliché (Morgan). However, either by accident or design, this test includes swathes of phrases that the general population would normally regard as idiom and not cliché. An idiom, such as “read between the lines,” is defined as a non-compositional phrase, and although common, the phrase does not seem especially trite or meaningless, and thus wouldn’t be called cliché. While this test is inaccurate, it does begin to expose how speakers observe or ignore the frequency of certain words.

This image of cliché in the minds of speakers seems to be at odds with how we actually deploy the word. For example, the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned” is undeniably a cliché, but you are highly unlikely to encounter it as frequently now in the 21st century as in the 18th, when it was conceived and presumably more popular in common conversation. Indeed, some common phrases such as the aforementioned “read between the lines” and “bearing in mind” are not considered trite in the slightest, yet appear more frequently than established cliché (Dillon). ‘

Frequency of Phrase “A Penny Saved is a” From 1800 to 2000

Frequency of Phrase “Bearing in Mind” From 1800 to 2000

(Google Books)

The data supports this. According to Google’s analysis of books, the popularity of the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned” has been declining since the 1820s, but the phrase “bearing in mind” reached an all-time high in usage in the 1970s, as seen above. This is evidence against the idea clichés are overused phrases or ideas, and for a working definition that focuses on how salient the unoriginality, or “trite-ness,” of the phrase is to the hearer, regardless of how many times they have encountered it before.

This is the defining characteristic of cliché. Consider one of my earlier respondents who said clichés are “cop-outs,” and the OED, which claims clichés “betray lack of original thought.” The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has done research on cliché as a tool of thought reform carried out by totalitarian regimes, and has supplied his own definition. He says cliché is when, “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases easily memorized and easily expressed” (Lifton). To him, repetition is not what makes something cliché, but how well it reduces huge problems or ideas into simple phrases. This definition gets more into the essence of what makes a cliché, as to have a simple phrase that addresses a large, common problem is useful, and it will probably be repeated as often as a holder of the phrase encounters the problem.

Given what we know about how we deploy the word and what definitions, institutions, and fellow speakers supply to us, the meaning of cliché is slightly different than we believe it to be. Cliché as we use it leans more towards statements that conspicuously display a lack of thought as opposed to ones that are often repeated. The two share a large intersection, but don’t necessarily encompass the same phrases or ideas. This is why I (wrongly) thought Shakespeare to be cliché, but give no notice to the banality of phrases such as “bearing in mind.” Perhaps we’re in denial. There is much more cliché in our language than we care to admit, and thus reserve the term for the most egregious offenses to originality.


Bibliography Cliché. n.d. Febuary 2018. <;.

Dillon, George L. “Corpus, creativity, cliché: Where statistics meet aesthetics.” Journal of Literary Semantics 35.2 (2006): 97-103.

Google Books. Google Books Ngram Viewer. n.d. 12 Febuary 2018. <;.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. UNC Press Books , n.d.

Merriam-Webster . Cliché. n.d. Febuary 2018. <;.

Morgan. What is a Cliché? . n.d. 12 Febuary 2018. <;.

Oxford English Dictionary. Cliché. n.d. Web.