Thursday, April 7

Seeing things differently - are our minds making it up?

One piece of advice I really appreciated from my first creative writing textbook was to try to see events from a new perspective:

"Writing is a process of becoming aware, of opening the senses to ways of grasping the world, ways that may previously have been blocked. Often we take the world around us for granted, we are so immersed in habit." (Neale, 2006: 44).  

The point of this is to try to see more, and see different things.  Without doing so, you will absorb a lot less material for your writing.  Which is surprising in a way - doesn't perception of the world a fairly straightforward representation of what is out there?  Well, no. Psychologists have known for a long time that what we see depends a lot on our expectations.  A timeless example of this is the power of illusions.  In the image below, do you see a rabbit's head or a duck's?

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion
Illusions clearly show that the percept - the impression we form - depends at least as much on what we hold in our minds as on what is out there in the world.

This leads to the conclusion that when we see and hear the world, the mind is taking a lot of shortcuts, leading us to see things imperfectly (see my previous post on how this may affect eyewitness memory in legal cases).  One explanation from cognitive psychology is that the mind wants to save processing power, so it takes the easy route - assuming that things tend to stay the same.  A good example of this that many of you will have tried during biology classes at school is the 'blind spot test': cover your right eye, then look at the cross below.  Out of the corner of your eye, you will be able to see the black patch with a dot.  At a certain distance from the screen, the dot disappears.

The Blind Spot Test
So what can this tell artists about perception?  It suggests, as stated in the quote above, that the brain is constantly filling in the blanks, and unless you take action to look at things non-habitually, you will very easy fall into stale habits of perception.  Sit in your usual seat, take your usual place in a lecture theatre, listen to your usual music, and it becomes very easy for the mind to take shortcuts.  Often, it may be taking in very little at all.

Can perception be changed?  I have a simple example from my own experience over the past few months of how it can.  Starting from an interest in illusions and ambiguous images, I began to look for images which a face, of some sort or other, can be seen.  The following example shows - it is possible to see a face in the clouds - if you look for it:

Over the Cloudy Sea - image by by Jah~
My experiences is that if you take the trouble to look, there are faces everywhere (yes, it sounds a bit freaky - don't go too far with this!)  Just one example, I believe, that you see things habitually if you choose to, but it's also possible to see things differently - to choose to break habits of perception.

Neale, D. (2006).  Writing what you know.  In L. Anderson (ed.), Creative Writing: A Workbook With Readings.  Milton Keynes/Abingdon: The Open University in association with Routledge.