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
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 (Pucceti 1974:150).
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.’ (Constantine-Paton 2008:3).
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
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.
Within the module the influence if excitatory and inhibitory synapses is structured so that differences,
rather than absolutes can be best detected. This arrangement might address a common cortical
problem: How to distinguish the signal from the noise, or the item of interest form the background.
Humans require repetition or sameness as a background for survival discrimination. This is the Yang-
iness 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 the 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 different manner.
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
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.