Seeing Is Believing
If visualization is ultimately ‘knowing enough to see,’ then at what point
does knowledge fail us?
Obviously, there has to be some sensory input to confabulate seeing,
but just how little is needed and exactly what sensory pathways must be
involved? How little is enough and how much of that is knowing? For
example, where do we draw the line where emotional, physical, or
cognitive extremes pervert the concept entirely? If I see a dot and
believe it’s a flying saucer, and you see a dot and believe it’s eye
floaters or fire ants, whose ‘visualization’ is the valid one? Are baselines
restricted to physical limitations such that we can’t see a worm in low
light? And if so, then how can so many with deprivations manage to
‘construct’ visualizations by other means? On what grounds are they
validated or invalidated?
And if the mind connects the dots, so to speak, by acting as the
confabulator of imagery, how does the brain wire itself to such an
idiosyncratic habit? How do two people with the same eye prescription
extract different things from the same scene?
In 1966, Adriaan De Groot showed that within 5 seconds, a master
chess player gets more relevant information than a lesser player in 15
minutes. In fact, they can replicate the board with ease. However, place
the pieces at random, and the master players ‘are no better than weak
players in reproducing the position after a five second exposure
The oversimplified answer is that they know the structure of the story
better because the story means more to them. And for one reason or
another, fired up by either personal pride or adrenaline, their memories
for these stories are therefore more significantly weighted than for
others. Or as Carla Schatz far more simply put it, ‘Neurons that fire
together are wired to together’ (Doige 2007:63).
In the past fifty years, we learned that the brain has preferred stationary
hubs for processing activities. We also learned that it is plastic, and
those hubs are neither rigidly mapped nor fixed by age or time. They
can vary from day to day, year to year, and more importantly, are
autobiographically innervated given the vagaries of life experience,
including corporeal changes, deprivations, and deficiencies.
In 1949, Donald O. Hebb suggested what anecdotal evidence has
proven since time immemorial; learning changes the linkage of neurons
in new ways. Taken further, Charles Sherrington and Charles Darwin
maintained that for those species for which the risk became the reward,
the new linkage seared itself by becoming, in some respects, an
adaptive and then innate tendency and characteristic, but not absolute
or fixed. Risk-taking is one among many of our trademarks. We often
undertake it without understanding the linkage of the reward.
Sounds confusing. If it's innate, one would think this means fixed. But
that is one of the mistakes of Darwinism, that long, long stretches of
time are required for altering genetics. He wasn't much of a
meteorologist or geologist and didn't consider enormous assaults of
environmental change as acting within a few generations on a given
species, such as the famous retracting beaks of the finches on the
If survival depends on perspicacity and rapid response, ‘creating’
physical solutions to environmental riddles in the form of manufactured
imagery also applies. The general tendency to repeat successful
behavior leads to something that is fixed. But the risks that led us to
solutions are on-going and require constant adaptation. How we draw
on our personalized basket of sensations is the platform that we now
need to consider.
While working in the 1960s in Germany, Michael Bach y Rita studied
how vision works in a cat’s brain at around the same time that the Nobel
prize winning team of David Hubel and Torsten Weisel did the same.
For both, the intent was to demonstrate the nature of neuron
responsiveness in the visual cortex when viewing an image, and which
nerve clusters spiked in what context.
The second team discovered (in addition to their work on the macaque
monkey) what became axiomatic, at least for a while, that the visual
cortex is essentially a cubic piece of woven cloth (some call it the ice
cube) comprised of six general layers of cell types. Neurons appeared
to line up in alternating vertical columns that processed one visual
element each. ‘Slabs’ saw line motifs in each eye, such as degrees of
slanting. And ‘blobs’ saw specific colors.
They begin to explain the physiology behind the psychophysics
explored by Edwin Land… color constancy despite luminescence
variation] especially the fact that colors in a scene are so incredibly
constant, despite the light source. (Hubel 1986:101)
Out of this grew a belief in a highly ‘constructed’ and localized brain,
and with good reason. They discovered that a window of opportunity for
motoring up what I call ‘flavors’ existed for a limited period so that a cat,
if by four months had been deprived of sight in one eye, would always
behave as if blind in that eye, whereas a normal adult, if deprived for the
same length of time, would not. If they didn’t use it by a certain period,
they’d lose it.
‘Abnormal experience in an early developmental phase could
permanently disrupt initially formed circuits.’
Bach y Rita saw something else. When they wired up the cat’s brain to
note how it ‘spiked’ when viewing a specific image, they noticed that
accidentally touching the paw also caused electrical activity in the same
area. For understanding visualization and therefore ‘art,’ this finding is
perhaps even more important because every practitioner already knows
this. It has been taught in the classroom for epochs. We instruct our
students before undertaking any rendering to ‘feel’ the volume. This is
not poetic whimsy; it is how we construct images based on a mirroring
or projecting of the self in place of the object. It is subjective to
an aggregate of sensory experience.
I am certain that if you monitored the impulses of my leg or back as
I tried to render a straight line, you would see the same thing that
Bach y Rita saw in the cat. We visualize by kinesthetically mimicking or
acting out the direction of the line or the movement. We draw buildings
with an innate understanding of weight and pressure, and to some
degree ‘feel it’. Only in part are we feeling ‘boundaries,’ best explained
by Rudolph Arnheim's research on art for the blind (Arnheim 1990:63).
When it became evident that blind persons take to the use of lines
without hesitation once they can control them by touch, there was
considerable surprise. How can one understand the meaning of lines
without the help of vision? But of course, lines are not copies of line like
shapes observed in nature. They are the spontaneous graphic
equivalent of the boundaries or elongated shapes of physical objects.
My back straightens like a board when I am trying to perfect a straight
line. It is no easy task to do so freehand and fluidly. When I draw a
body, the spindles or ‘mechano-receptors’ in my joint muscles ‘mimic’
what I believe to be theirs according to my innate sympathetic
understanding. How this feels, spikes my ability to ‘see’ it. This
pervasive coordination of ‘capture’ has been found for sound too,
though I doubt to the same degree. Therefore, the visual cortex is not
‘sight’ specific. It interprets and translates across sensory modules.
This suggests far more diversity than the generalized gross structure of
the visual cortex that has long been divided into a lower ventral stream
that is sensitive to the ‘what-ness’ of an object, and the upper dorsal
stream, which is sensitive to object location and the ‘where and how’ of
it. Motion is detected here. Our optic behavior receives cues from this
system by helping adjust our ability to track objects and how much to
adjust for it.
We accomplish this by means of saccades, the ‘jumps’ our eyes make
to shift focus from one thing to another. Our seeming ease in making
these endless adjustments might suggest it is automatic, that volition
could not be in constant play. But volition does appear to be the case.
The thalamus, a deep-brain nucleus of cells right above the spinal
column, is also part of the ancient brain. It appears to have been the
original ‘decider’ before our neocortex enveloped it. But it retains
enough of those deterministic functions to act like a swinging door.
Other than the olfactory system, which bypasses it completely, sensory
input after it is captured must pass through here for interpretation to
particular hubs and then back again to the neocortex. Decisions appear
to be somewhat formed here as they are selectively gated back to our
relatively modern cortex.
Take those little ‘saccades’ that we all use to refocus our vision. They
are very much in tune with our behavioral goals (i.e., our intentions).
Central thalamic neurons play a role in the context dependent
linkage of sensory signals and saccadic commands…for which
the central thalamus serves as the penultimate synapse’.
(Wyder et al 2004:2628).
The thalamus might be the switching station for determining relevance,
and therefore somehow ‘knows’ that I will shift my focus and how far
before I do it. It is not reflexive; it is thoughtful. But you didn’t have to be
told that. You know that you look where you want to. But it also helps
regulate how far to adjust your focus so you don’t overshoot your goal. I
owe a great deal therefore to the thalamus. Without it, I could never find
my place back on the right cross bar of the train trestle after I have
momentarily turned away from it to draw it on the pad. I also owe a great
deal to my short-term memory.
Vive la différence
In my most relaxing moments, I believe I rest my eyes on overall
patterns that repeat. Like ocean waves. Or rolling mountains.
Or chevrons. The reason for this is I simply don’t want to think.
I believe this makes me comfortable and unworried. I know that
when I sit on my deck and look out to the high grass beyond, I can
scan across the field, content to know that it is behaving as it should.
Except I am doing quite the opposite.
Whatever micro-modules processing data in my brain might be, and no
doubt this is ardently researched, the fact remains that on an anecdotal
level, I am purposefully shutting down all the possible feedback on the
minute details of this field because it is just too much information; what
blade looks like another, which is this or that color, etc. Although my
intention is to generalize the ‘behavior’ of this field, the cognitive
reason is that I am discarding ‘noise,’ the unnecessary details.
I do so instinctively, no matter how far out I look or how close in,
whether I concentrate on one blade of grass or a tuft in the field.
I turn the ‘noise’ off so I can turn the volume up for what could be
different out there, a goal I seek no matter how hard I try not to.
We call this ‘contrast enhancement.’ Artists gorge on this
instinct, which is attributed to a cognitive wiring, present, I would think,
in all creatures large and small.
The influence of excitatory and inhibitory synapses is structured so that
differences, rather than absolutes can be best detected. This
arrangement might address a common cortical problem i.e. How to
distinguish the signal from the noise or the item of interest from the
background. (Miller 1987:705)
Humans require repetition or sameness as a background for survival
discrimination. This is the Yang-i-ness to the Ying I mentioned
previously. It allows the brain to fire efficiently by selecting for
difference. When the backdrop of sameness is removed, the ‘noise’ is
turned up too high. For example, we have all heard of the Chinese
water torture. What we don’t realize is that the concept is based on the
randomness of drops rather than their regularity such that the victim
who is tied down and unable to consider anything else, cannot turn off
the ‘noise’ because ALL of it is noisy. Everything is different. There is no
contrasting backdrop of routine.
The brain, no doubt, is overstimulated, and over-synapsing leads to
insanity, as the legend goes. I would suggest another form of torture
that appears to be just the opposite. That of experiencing an all-
encompassing sameness like the Alhambra's arabesque plaster tiling or
an elaborate Celtic knot pattern, and then being asked to seek, select,
and follow the sinuous linear pattern within. The suggestion being that
there is one. The torture sets in when you begin to track the undulating
line and are unable and unwilling to be captured in a web of seeming
uniformity. Our minds tell us this cannot be. A single, interlocking line
simply cannot produce this vast impression of uniformity. Therefore, we
seek the mistake, the outcome, the end, and there is none. It is hellish.
We return to where we began this discussion. Recognizing difference
against a backdrop of uniformity as the norm. Acting it out is also the
norm, finding the worm, seeing the grass move oddly, noticing a
different tone of voice in your child, though the words are the same or a
These are the criteria for warnings, both pleasurable and malevolent.
Scavenging and collecting are also typical for most creatures, the
interpretation of which these ‘objects’ prompt other responses. To say
these basic cause and effect behaviors are not symbolic is, I believe,
inordinately constrained. Let's see why I say this.
If the artist practitioner depends on the exploitation of difference for
greater effect, this activity begins by separating found objects into like
piles that become relatively fixed. As seen in the Acheulian manuport
collections that are hardly much different than a Bower Bird’s
scavenging for red objects, appreciating such found objects can hardly
be said to have changed that much in our personal domestic behavior.
Our homes are collections of things we have scavenged. We have
physically brought them together in a pile. The same holds true on a
more ‘intellectual-esoteric’ level regarding avant-garde art. The Art
Gallery Director, despite his erudition and manner, is doing nothing
more than assembling found objects, in this case, made by others, and
in the artist’s case, often merely a different packaging of found objects.
Such is ‘conceptual art.’ And symbolism run amok.
But when the Africanus hominid placed his foot into the footprint of
another, he was doing more than collecting. He was recreating an
image by assimilating it with his own physical dimension and fitting his
body to it. He was capturing the image through a number of different
senses by fusing valuations.
Give him the credit he deserves. He was
thinking in symbols.