Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Change Blindness

Ellie pointed me to this fascinating article by Natalie Angier on change blindness in Tuesday's Science Times section of the New York Times. It seems that there's an awful lot we miss, when we think we're seeing; and that there's an intricate selection process that takes place in the brain, enabling us to select from a vast amount of information out there in the visual world. The choice involved in what we see can prevent us from noticing when even obvious things change in our line of vision.

This is particularly interesting, for me, in my art-writing hat, from the point of view of the way we look at art. When I find myself, as sometimes happens, talking to people who are puzzled or angered by what they see when they look at contemporary art, I'm always at pains to get them away from what they think they see--usually their own prejudices--and what's actually there, in front of their eyes. Most often, when we go into a museum or gallery, we take with us our own expectations and assumptions, and walk out not having seen the art at all.

What do we see? Sometimes we think we see what we ought to see, conditioned by purely social expectations. We are expected to have heard, let's say, of Jasper Johns, so what we see when we look at a painting by this artist is what we have learned about him, what our teachers might have said, what such and such a critic might have written, what we think about the millionaire who has one hanging above the couch in his living room. The more we think we know, the more of this stuff we bring with us--and the more we have to sweep away in order to see what's actually there. If I bring with me a pre-existing notion of what art should look like, based on a casual acquaintance with the history of art from the Renaissance through the Impressionists, anything that fails to fit the pattern of my prejudice--a Picasso, say--will seem like "something my child could do."

Some years ago, I designed--and offered in a number of museum and gallery settings--an experience called "One Hour, One Painting." The idea was to gather a small number of people to sit with me in front of a single painting for a full hour, and do nothing but look. Inspired in part by my knowledge that museum visitors spend an average of six seconds in front of any given painting, and in part by my experience as a practitioner of meditation, the experience was a blend of open- and closed-eye work in which I, as the facilitator/narrator, would lead participants' eyes on a walk through the painting, inviting them simply to pay attention to certain features as we went--and to those we miss on the first, the second, the third visit to the exact same spot. The session always ended with an invitation to find one last "surprise," a detail missed before, despite sixty minutes of attention to the same small area of canvas.

The way I'd prefer to look at art--and I confess I often fail to live up to my own standard!--fits right in with everything I have learned from the Buddhist teachings. It's about being in the present moment, about cutting through the bullshit with which we all too often confuse ourselves and those around us, about breaking the old patterns and habits that prevent us from clear insight. It's also about finding a kind of serenity, a place where I can discriminate, but have no need to judge, a non-attachment that allows the art-work to be precisely what it is, and not necessarily a reflection of my needs.

I also think that this notion of "change blindness" could have a much wider application. So much passes us by, when we fail to pay attention. I have in mind an essay which will be titled "Who Are We? Really?"--an essay that will explore the ways in which we allow inattention to blind us to realities that become distressingly obvious when we take the time and the trouble to look. We need to open our eyes to more than the purely visual information that surrounds us. We need to open them to other realities, too.


John Torcello said...

It's not just blindness..It's sometimes about being fooled...

Technology utilizes much of what you decribe today; namely, the relatively few things we actually see in human eye perception, to its advantage in products such as DVD-Video.

The video files encoded to a DVD-Video utilize a digital file compression standard called MPEG 2. MPEG stands for the Moving Pictures Experts Group. MPEG is sort of like a ZIP file for motion video.

Carefully crafted MPEG 2 encodings of video content result in moving picture images that, if you had it available to you, rival the look of the source video master.

The caveat; the resultant MPEG 2 compressed file is usually about 1/10th the size of the original uncompressed master. That means 90% of the source material you either are not seeing or is displayed synthesized in some way in playback from the DVD!

I won't go into the process here; but, basically the MPEG standard compresses/synthesizes incoming images both; vertically (image data within each static frame); and horizontally (across the passage of time) using statistical models of applied mathematical predictive probability algorithms to 'best guess' whether it should capture an original incoming frame, predict a next frame or synthesize data from previous and predicted results (mathematical guesses)...

So, now that I've destroyed the DVD viewing experience for you all...At least you now have a practical example of 'things are not as they seem'...

John Torcello

MandT said...

Very interesting article. Those who meditate are acutely aware of this phenomena, particularly after a sesshin, when reentering the world, a phantasma of sensation opens up. One can even see the 'energy' projections of living plants in this view. The human mind is in the final analysis superior to technology. :)

PeterAtLarge said...

John--my poor head reels! Good to hear from you!

MandT--thanks for stopping by. Did you get my email?

Mercurious said...

I, too, saw this piece and was fascinated by it.

Recently I've come across a couple of articles that suggest the role of our neurology and sensory apparatus is actutally to LIMIT our contact with the world. The function of focus and concentration seems to be to narrow our world so that we can make sense of it.

Conditions such as ADD and even autism appear to be partly about a central nervous system that is unable to ignore stimuli.

I'm not entirely sure what this implies for a meditation practice...sometimes it feels like it broadens the senses, other times as though its concentrating them.

PeterAtLarge said...

I recall an exercise I once did on a retreat, where we were asked to use the eye perform exactly those functions--first to narrow, then to broaden the focus. to include as much visual information as possible. A powerful experience. I even wrote a poem about it.

Eli said...

What a great exercise! I rarely go to art galleries, but I always pore over the details of my favorite pieces for a minute or two before moving on to the next. I can only imagine what I might discover after an hour's experience!

Thanks also for the comment! It's been rainy the past few days, but thankfully Springfield hasn't gotten anything nasty beyond a few minutes of hail. A town about 40 minutes North of us received some moderate tornado damage, so we have been pretty lucky. :)

citizen of the world said...

I've done something similar only a few times (because I often have my kids with me at museums). Not a fullhour, though - bu I'll just sit in front of a piece for a long while taking it in.

They call him James Ure said...

I find a lot of this ignorance and arrogance toward my Outsider art.

Some people don't like my heavy emotional symbolism while others snootily look down on my art as not "realistic" enough.

I have to feel for those in the first category because they fear their emotions and feelings. As for the latter category I have to laugh because what the hell is reality anyway?!!! :)