A year ago, I had the privilege to attend a lecture by J. Kevin O’Regan, ex-director of the Laboratoire de Psychologie de la Perception at the Université René Descartes, Paris 5. In his book, Why Red doesn’t sound like a bell, J. Kevin O’Regan writes about consciousness and feel in a new way. The first part is about the feel of seeing.
Why do we think we see “everything” in front of us whereas our eyes are not that good? Is it because the brain provides us with a fully corrected representation? No, J. Kevin O’Regan says.
(Please note most references to and quotes from J. Kevin O’Regan are from Why Red doesn’t sound like a bell, 2011, Oxford University Press. Please also note some additions are on my own initiative, like the silly pictures, the Mantis Shrimp, the airships or TeamLab’s concept. All mistakes are my own.)
Can’t see sh*t, captain!
First, J. K. O’Regan stresses that our eyes are indeed far from perfect.
You might know some animals can see more colours than we do, like the Mantis Shrimp, as shown in this hilarious comic strip by the Oatmeal (click the image for full glory):
But if only we could see perfectly with our own sensors! No, we also have an inverted, distorted picture on our retina, a blind spot, a rubbish peripherical vision, etc, etc, etc…
Touch only with your eyes!
Yet usually we don’t feel impaired, we feel we can grab most of the ongoing scene. Vision has presence, continuity.
J. Kevin O’Regan suggests there is no hidden homonculus looking at a perfected image somewhere in our brain. Seeing is like touching: we actively explore the environment with our eyes, as we explore it with our fingers. Seeing stems from interacting with the environment, we ask questions about our surroundings and can get some answers. Is this person far, is this car red, can we see the Eiffel Tower from here… Even if the object I’m wondering about is not directly in front of me, I know I can glance in its direction and gather information. J. Kevin O’Regan thinks seeing feels so real because of the richness of the real world, of bodiliness (ie: when I move, what I see changes), insubordinateness (ie: sometimes the visual changes are not related to my body movements), and grabbiness (ie: sudden changes grab our attention).
The Inverted World
So why don’t we experience the huge defaults our eyes have?
In 1896 and 1897, George M. Stratton wore an inverting (left-right, upside-down) apparatus for a few days in a row. At first most actions felt understandably confusing, but after a few days he started to feel things were right again. Someone else wore left-right inverting glasses until he could manage to drive. He correctly identified on which side of their cars other drivers were sitting, but when asked to read the license plates, he said he couldn’t as they looked mirrored!
Thus the adaptation to such apparatuses is not global, but restricted to some situations.
For instance, I know how to apply make-up or put contact lenses on my eyes when looking in a mirror. But I remember when I tried to press the Ground floor button in my lift while looking at the control panel in a mirror. I had to try several times, groping around in a most undignified way. J. Kevin O’Regan gives a similar example: he knows how to shave in front of a mirror, but once he tried to adjust his sideburns and failed…
As concerns the perceptual impression people have, it is less that they think the world is either upside down or right side up, but more that they are familiar or unfamiliar with how things look, that things are easy or difficult to deal with.
For instance, facial expression and face recognition are different mechanisms. An upside-down face can be recognized fairly easily, even when the eyes and mouth are not simultaneously inverted – and the facial expression is not processed in the same way. The horrible Frankenstein’s creature-like expression is seen when the picture is right side up again.
A lot of examples can be found here.
Spot the difference!
And indeed, we only really see what we are currently manipulating with our eyes. Some experiments show that we don’t see as much as we think we do…
Inattentional blindness is what J. Kevin O’Regan labels as “Looked but failed to see”. Sometimes while we think we’re seeing the whole scene, some changes we did not expect are not seen…
There are some real life consequences, as stated in this Transport For London vid:
Change blindness is another interesting phenomenon.
While obvious changes in normal circumstances are often easily spotted, when the visual continuity is prevented by some disruptions, pretty much as in a Spot the difference game, most observers have trouble noticing what changed.
Here is a custom example (this is the Potential Airship flying over Brittany) using the mudsplash technique.
Can you spot the difference?
You can find better examples on J. Kevin O’Regan’s website: http://nivea.psycho.univ-paris5.fr/#CB
Brain and Subjective Space
J. Kevin O’Regan doesn’t tone down the ability of the brain. He writes:
In my statement: “Visual experience is not generated in the brain,” the important point is not the word brain, but the word generated. Visual experience is simply not generated at all. […] The brain enables the form of interaction with the environment that we call vision, and we can and should investigate how it works.
I’ve also read about some very interesting concepts about the subjectivity of seeing, linking space and vision with art: http://www.team-lab.net/en/teamlabconcept
If space is cognized in terms of layers, then people will design space in terms of layers. If we look at Japanese garden design we do find that it is designed in terms of layers. Whilst a Western garden, built and designed through perspective, does no exhibit layers, but appears very beautiful from a specific viewpoint.
The first Super Mario, created in Kyoto, takes place in a very layered environment too. While I don’t know about the validity of their claims, their artistic and cultural approach to vision is very interesting.