Friday, July 29, 2011

Seeing Symbols

“Vision is nothing more than the creation of symbols in our head that represent what exists outside our body,” says Michael S. Sweeney, author of Brain: The Complete Mind.

Our brains encode the world to give it meaning. This encoding process happens automatically. People hear a car backfiring and think it was a gun. They hear a gunshot and think it was a firecracker. They feel an earthquake and think a heavy truck rumbled by.

The actual event is thus translated, accurately or not, into a symbol of the event. We react not to the raw data outside us, but to the symbol created in our minds. Both the complex structures of the cerebral cortex and the more basic emotional centers come into play in this visual response. According to Sweeney, “We react to the pictures in our heads instead of to the world itself.”

This tendency to see in symbols works both for us and against us as we try to represent the world in our artwork.

Brain: The Complete Mind by Michael S. Sweeney
Previously on GJ: The Arab Guard
The photo of me doing a street portrait in Fez, Morocco was taken in 2008 by Alan Dean Foster


Michael said...

On Intelligence
Copyright © 2004 by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee

A hierarchy if nested sequences allows the sharing and reuse of lower-level objects — words, phonemes and letters being but a few examples. It is a remarkably efficient way to store information about the world and its structure and very different from how computers work.

If lower regions of cortex fail to predict what patterns they are seeing they consider this an error and pass the error up the hierarchy. This is repeated until some region does anticipate the pattern.

Rubysboy said...

Symbols could be a misleading term for what the brain stores when presented with visual inputs from the retina. It certainly does not store a 'picture in the head.' It's a pattern of nerve impulses firing in a fixed relation to one another, a pattern that we can recall and manipulate in our conscious minds. What visual patterns the brain 'decides' to store is partly determined by what we've learned in early childhood, just as we learn to store the aural patterns of speech.

So, these findings from brain research do not imply that our brains naturally or inevitably store some sort of simplified image such as the ancient Egyptians used for eyes, or such as the lollipops children draw for trees.

James Gunter said...

Quote, "This tendency to see in symbols works both for us and against us as we try to represent the world in our artwork."

How so? Is this a future post?

My Pen Name said...

you sketched in Fez? brave man. I tried to several times and the touts were on me me like hawks.
Also its very very easy to point your camera in the wrong direction. I photographed the royal palace guards at one gate, no problem. a side gate and the police came running over.
I flew into fez...I happen to have my sketchbook in my hand and when customs saw it they were not going to let me in the country.

@james gunter I think of children's drawing - trees as lollipops, or the common distortions that are made drawing the face. That's why books like drawing on the right size of the brain try to break the association -

My Pen Name said...

PS, though I find books like 'The Brain that Changes Itself" fascinating, I am always a little bit wary of brain theories.. in my lifetime I have seen new theories come about, and greatly effect everyone's thinking and interpretation of something, only to be proven wrong or misapplied later
(freudian psychology and currently, evolution-as-an-explanation-for-all-human-behavior are two examples). Remember (not too long ago) when scientists were 'sure' that the brain couldn't generate new neurons?

Remember out of africa theory and how that effected everyone's thinking? (we like painted landscapes because it reminds of the african Savannah and good hunting) now it turns out, Europeans and Asians at least, are part Neanderthal.

For anyone over forty, need i even go into the various 'authorities' who told us that butter was bad for us, then margine was, then fat was, now carbs are..

Scorchfield said...

În Greek language symbol means: connection!
Therefore determined by this artist to define art like ownstate(symbol), it is a relationship with the world.

I like the picture of this post!

Tom said...

Deciding something is a firecracker and not a gunshot is a thought about what happen. Just like the idea of and inside and a outside is a thought. Where does the world end and "we" begin?

James Gurney said...

These are all really insightful and informed comments, and I have to admit to giving sort of a half-baked blog post.

James, The quote intrigued me, but I'm not sure why, or exactly how it relates to drawing, maybe for the very reason Michael so clearly articulated. The symbols, whatever they are, are not quite like the childlike image of things. I guess the point is that we're not like cameras, and that selectivity, grouping, and analysis are happening at all levels of perception.

My Pen, I had success with the touts by jokingly trying to sell THEM something. (I told them that for 50 cents they could dip their finger in my cup of water and it would make them 10 years younger). They loved it, became my buddies, and let me sketch them.

Dom said...

How do you manage to draw people in public like that? Do you just ask?

James Gurney said...

Dom, yes, I memorized a line of French that says, "can I draw your portrait?" He didn't mind at all.