What we see, and what we think we see

One of my favorite artists — and YouTube video star — is James Gurney, who produces amazing paintings on-site (plein-air is the artistic term) and videos the process so that he can share them with his thousands of subscribers.

Gurney also has a website on which something new appears just about every day.

This past weekend, he posted a piece on the latest science of how our eyes work. When we look at something, we see many details. The latest research, however, says we’re not really seeing those details. We’re filling in what we know should be there.

Unlike a camera, the eye’s retina sends relative few signals back to the brain, according to Gurney who cites the work of some New York University scientists.

The magic happens in the visual cortex, which is much better connected neurally. As the brain begins to sort out the relatively meager information it receives, it elaborates the data into a richer representation. Until recently, scientists thought this process happened in a “feed forward” direction, a one-way trip from retina to visual cortex to higher vision centers in the brain.

But it turns out that information often loops back from higher to lower levels of processing, amplifying weak signals into richer images. This happens in real time, largely unconsciously, and sometimes inaccurately, such as when you think you see a snake, but it turns out to be a rope. Source: Gurney Journey: Our visual system elaborates meager input

Artists have intuitively known this for centuries. An artist cannot — and should not — look at a scene or an object and try to reproduce exactly what he or she thinks is there. Rather, what we produce are representations of those objects or scenes so that the viewer can fill them in.

Art instructors are constantly telling students to look at a subject and squint — that is, try to take in less information, not more. Get the big picture, the lights and darks, not the details. Draw the tree, not the branches and leaves.

When you view a representational painting, you generally see more than is there. Now scientists are telling us why that is.


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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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