Notes on Seeing
To look and not see: an old problem. It usually means a lack of understanding, an inability to divine the meaning of something in the world around us.
Cognitive scientists have repeatedly conducted the following experiment and, without fail, they come up with same results. An audience is asked to watch a film of two teams playing basketball. They are given a job to count the number of times the ball changes hands. I have done this, and one has to be very attentive to follow the motion of the ball. In the middle of the game, a man wearing a gorilla suit walks onto the court, turns to the camera, thumps his chest and leaves. Half the people do not see the great ape. They do not believe that he was actually there until the film is replayed and, indeed, a gorilla strolls in and out of the game. Nearly everyone sees the gorilla if he is not given the assignment. This has been named inattentional blindness.
Writing at my desk now, I see the screen but this sentence dominates my attention. In fact, my momentary awareness that there is much around the words distracts me: the blue screen of the computer beyond the white edge of the page; various icons above and below; the surface of my desk cluttered with small Post-it squares which, when I turn my head, I can read, “Habermas 254-55”, “Meany et. al, implications for andrenocortical responses to stress” scrawled on pink paper (residue of arcane research); a black stapler; and countless other objects that enter my awareness the moment I turn to them. What is crucial is that I don’t turn to them. For hours every day, I have little, if any, consciousness of them. I live in a circumscribed phenomenal world. An internal narrator speaks words and dictates to my fingers that type automatically. There is no need to think about the connection between head and hands. I am subsumed by the link. Were another object suddenly to materialize on my desk and then vanish, I might well have no knowledge of either its appearance or disappearance.
Once, in an unfamiliar hallway, I mistook myself for a stranger because I did not understand I was looking in a mirror. My own form took me by surprise because I was not oriented in space. Expectation is powerful.
There are days when I think I see an old friend in the street, but it is a stranger. The recognition ignites like a match and then is instantly extinguished when I understand I am wrong. The recognition is felt, not thought. I can’t trace what created the error, can’t tell you why one person reminded me of another. Was the old friend a subliminal presence in my mind on that particular day or was the confusion purely external—a jut of the chin or slope of the shoulders or rhythm of a walk?
We do not become anesthetized to horrible photographs of death or suffering. We may choose to avoid them. When I see a gruesome image in the newspaper in the morning, I sometimes turn away, registering in seconds that looking too long will hurt me. People who gorge on horror films and violent thrillers do it, not because they have learned to feel too little, but because they indulge in the limbic rush that floods their systems as they safely witness exploding bodies. It seems that these viewers are mostly men.
We feel colors before we can name them. Colors act on us pre-reflectively. A part of me feels red before I can name red. My cognitive faculties lag behind the color’s impact. Standing in a room my eyes go first to the vase of red tulips because they are red and because they are alive.
My mother once told me about coming home to find our cat dead on the lawn. She saw the poor animal from many yards away, but she said she knew with absolute assurance that it was dead. An inert thing. An it.
Photographs of the beloved dead draw me in. I am fascinated. There is the good, dear face, one that changed over time. It is the picture that preserves the face, not my memory, which is befogged by the many faces he had over the years. Or is it the single face that grew old? Sometimes I cannot bear to look. The image has become a token of grief. And yet, there is nothing so banal as the pictures of strange families. After my father died, I found Christmas cards with photographs of unknown people among his papers—happy families—grinning into an invisible lens. I threw them away.
Galvanic skin response registers a change in the heat and electricity passed through the skin by nerves and sweat during emotional states. People in white coats attach electrodes to your hands and track what happens. When they show you a picture of your mother, your GSR goes up. Meaning in the body.
Is our visual world rich or poor? There are fights about this. People do not agree. Philosophers and scientists and other academics ponder this richness and poverty question in papers and books and lectures. Human beings have very limited peripheral vision, but we can turn our heads and take in more of the world. When I’m writing, my vision is severely limited by my attention, but sometimes when I let my eyes roam in a space, I discover its density of light and color and feel surprised by what I find. When I focus, say, just on the shadows here on my desk, they become remarkable. My small round clock casts a double shadow from either side of its circular base, one darker than the other, a gray and a paler gray. There is a spot of brilliant light at the edge of the darker oval. As I look, this sight has become beautiful.
Why is a face beautiful?
If an image is flashed too quickly to be perceived consciously, we take it in unconsciously and we respond to it without knowing what is happening. A picture of a scowling face I can’t say I’ve seen affects me anyway. Scientists call this masking. Blindsight patients have cortical blindness. They lose visual consciousness but not visual unconsciousness. They see but don’t know they are seeing. If you ask them to guess what you’re holding (a pencil) they will guess far better than people who are truly blind. Words and consciousness are connected. How much do I see of the world that never registers in my awareness? When I walk in the street, I sometimes glimpse a scene for just an instant but I cannot tell you what I have witnessed until a fraction of a second later when the puzzling image falls into place: that furry thing was a stuffed animal and a little boy was dangling it from his stroller. The lag again.
We are picture-making creatures. We scribble and draw and paint. When I draw what I see, I touch the thing I am looking at it with my mind, but it is as if my hand is caressing its outline. People who stopped drawing as children continue to make pictures in their dreams or in the hallucinations that arrive just before they go to sleep. Where do those images come from? I dreamed grass and brush and sticks were growing out of my arm, and I got to work busily trimming myself with a scissors. I wasn’t alarmed; it was a job handled in a matter-of-fact way. If I painted a self portrait with bushy arms, I would be called a surrealist.
Some people who go blind see vivid images and colors. Some people who are losing their vision hallucinate while awake. An old man saw cows grazing in his living room, and a woman saw cartoon characters running up and down her doctor’s arm. Charles Bonnet syndrome. Just before I fell asleep, I saw a little man speeding over pink and violet cliffs. Once I saw an explosion of melting colors—green, blues, reds, and then a great flash of light that devoured them all. Hypnogogic hallucinations. Freud said dreams protect sleep. At night the world is taken from us and we make up our own scenes and stories. When you wake up slowly, you will remember more of that human underground.
Deprived of sight, we make visions. Seeing is also creating.
There are things in the world to see. Do I see what you see? We can talk about it and verify the facts. Through my window is the back of a house. One of its windows is completely covered by a blue shade. But if I tell you I see a flying zebra you will say, Siri, you are hallucinating. You are dreaming while awake.
Sometimes artists can make a hallucination real. A painting of a flying zebra is a real thing in the world, a real thing to see.
Why do I not like the word “taste” when applied to art? Because it has lost its connection to the mouth and food and chewing. I don’t like the way this picture tastes. It’s bitter. If we thought about actual tastes, the word would still work. It would be a form of synesthesia, a crossing of our senses: seeing as tasting. But usually it is not used like that anymore so I avoid it entirely when I talk about art.
Looking at a human being or even a picture of a human being is different from looking at an object. Newborn babies, only hours old, copy the expressions of adults. They pucker up, try to grin, look surprised, and stick out their tongues. The photographs of imitating infants are both funny and touching. They do not know they are doing it; this response is in them from the beginning. Later, people learn to suppress the imitation mechanism; it would not be good if we went on forever copying every facial expression. Nevertheless, we human beings love to look at faces because we find ourselves there. When you smile at me, I feel a smile form on my own face before I am aware it is happening, and I smile because I am seeing me in your eyes and know that you like what you see.
I am looking at a small reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman, which hangs in a room at The Metropolitan Museum here in New York. It is a girl’s head and face. I say girl because she is very young. From her face I would guess she is no more than ten years old. When I look up the picture in one of my books on Vermeer, I see that there it is called Portrait of a Young Girl, a far better title. We should not turn girls into women too soon. She is smiling, but not a wide smile. Her lips are sealed. My impression is that she is looking at me, but I cannot quite catch her eye. What is certain is that she is answering someone else’s gaze. Someone has made her smile. She is not a beautiful child; it is her looking that is beautiful, her connection to the invisible person. There is shyness in her expression, reserve, maybe a hint of hesitancy. I think she is looking at an adult, probably the artist, because she has not let herself go. She looks over her shoulder at him. I have great affection for this girl. That is the magic of the painting; it is not that I have affection for a representation of a child’s head that was painted some time between 1665 and 1667. No, I feel I have actually fallen for her, the way I fall for a child who looks up at me on the street and smiles, perhaps a homely child, who with a single look calls forth a burst of maternal feeling and sympathy. But my emotion is made of something more; I remember my own girlhood and my shyness with grownups I didn’t know well. I was not a bold child and in her face I see myself at the same age.
In some of Gerhard Richter’s painted-over photographs, he painted over his wife’s face and parts of her body. He covered the bodies of his children, too, in snapshots of them as babies and growing children. In these gestures, I felt he was keeping them for himself, keeping the private hidden. Other times, he framed them with swaths of color, turning them into featured subjects. I love those pictures.
Mothers have a need to look at their children. We cannot help it.
Lovers have a need to look at each other. They cannot help it.
Several years ago a friend sent me a paper on mirror neurons. They were found in the brains of macaque monkeys. When one monkey makes a gesture, grabs a banana, neurons in his premotor cortex are activated. When another monkey watches the gesture, but doesn’t make it, the same neurons are activated in his brain. Human beings have them, too. We reflect each other.
Looking at pornography is exciting but loses its interest after orgasm.
Reading the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses when Molly Bloom is remembering is erotic because she gives permission, gives up and gives way, and this is always exciting and interesting because it is personal not impersonal. Isn’t it strange that looking at little abstract symbols on a white page can make a person feel such things? I see her in his arms. I am in his arms. I remember your arms.
When I read stories, I see them. I make pictures and often they remain in my mind after I have finished a novel, along with some phrases or sentences. I ground the characters in places, real and imagined. But I always remember the feeling of a book best, unless I have forgotten it altogether.
I do not usually see philosophy with some exceptions: Plato, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche because they are also storytellers.
Some people cannot make visual imagery. They do not see pictures in their minds. They do not turn words into images. I didn’t know such a thing was possible until a short time ago. They see abstractly. They remember the symbols on the page.
“I see” can also mean “I understand.”
There is a small part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that is crucial for recognizing faces. If you lose this ability your deficit is called prosopagnosia. It happens that a person with brain damage looks at herself in the mirror, and believes she is seeing, not herself, but a double. It seems that what has vanished is not reason, but that special feeling we get when we look at our reflections, that warm sense of ownership. When that disappears, the image of one’s self becomes alien.
I look and sometimes I see.