Saturday, September 20, 2008

A New Set of Eyes

Last year I took Narrative Neuropsychology, also taught by Elizabeth. Through writings by Oliver Sacks and others, we examined processes of the human brain that - when they work well - exist outside of our conscious perception and thought, but which as a result of injury or illness may be suddenly thrust into our awareness in all their baffling complexity. No one ever thinks about exactly how and why we forget some things and remember others, recognize people, or identify objects until a malfunction occurs, making us painfully aware of how the process has gone wrong - and accordingly giving us insight into how it must have worked in the first place.

In this class we've explored this theme with a specific focus on the realm of visual perception. Vision is, like the many neurological functions we examined in Narrative Neuropsychology, is common to all of us, and therefore we can't help but learn much about ourselves through the readings. Vision is arguably even more basic than memory or object recognition, so what we learn can give us insight into our most fundamental experiences and earliest memories.

In chapter four of Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, for example, Margaret Livingstone explains the characteristics of our visual system that allow children from a very young age to identify consistent colors, regardless of the variability of the wavelengths being reflected off of an object. A child's ability to identify a colored block as green may represent to us one of the most basic of human neurological capabilities, but that is only because the process behind color identification and discounting the illuminant are hidden from us. Livingstone's chapters allow us to conceive of how intricate and incredible our most "basic" abilities really are.

Robert Solso, in chapters three and four of The Psychology of Art, augments the understanding of the biological processes behind color with an evolutionary analysis of human visual capability. Just as we are often completely blind to the functions of the brain that allow us to perceive and understand visual information, we lack a connection to the long evolutionary history that would explain what allowed those brain functions to develop.

A lack of an understanding of history compounds the problems created by our innate inability to separate out all of the brain's intricate processes. We may, for example, learn about the "where" and the "what" systems, but our understanding of them is not complete without the revelation of the "what" system as a possible primate "add-on." I was fascinated by this idea, and the visual it inspired in me: that of all of human evolution as an ancient rock that, when split in half, might reveal all the different colored layers laid on top of each other that spell out the story of its entire existence. Obviously we can't just crack ourselves open to reveal the map of our evolution like the layers of a rock or a tree's rings, but we can open our minds to the concept that we are not simply a "new" species that evolved from something else, changing its structure completely - but that we contain our own history, buried below the more obvious new layers and continuing to exist in the form of the so-called reptilian brain or the "old" where system.

Livingstone touches upon that aspect of evolutionary theory in The Biology of Seeing, but Solso provides a more detailed and surprisingly accessible explanation. That accessibility, however, undermines Solso's argument in my opinion. His condensation of all of human visual adaptation into a chapter and a few bullet points conceals the true character of evolutionary theory, which is - as I understand it - much more complex and unknowable than Solso would have us believe.

I did, however, find Solso's mention of body temperature as a factor in the development of the human brain to be fascinating - something I hadn't heard of before. Although his account of human evolution may be oversimplified in my opinion, there weren't any details in it that were necessarily "wrong." It may in fact be helpful to keep in mind Solso's simple explanation of human evolution - "The brain evolved complex cognitive mechanisms to survive in a changing environment" - while we move on to increasingly complex aspects of the visual system. Additionally, the introduction of the concept of parallel processing - and particularly the "massive" parallel processing that goes on in the human brain - is critical to our understanding of our visual system as one that is simultaneously fast, complex, and blissfully beyond our conscious perception.

Through Solso's and Livingstone's chapters, I came to understand my fascination with the visual system as the result of natural human ignorance. As a result of our own neurological composition and a couple million years' separation from our beginnings, we lack access to both our present and our past - the everyday chemical and electrical operation of our own brains and the evolutionary history that would start to explain why it happens that way. Art & Visual Perception is fascinating because it begins to illuminate that which is both extremely close - in our own bodies - and extremely distant as a result of the knowledge we lack about our own selves. All psychology classes may offer such illumination, but this one stands apart from the rest in that it seeks to address those neurological processes that are most fundamental to our experience. We expect to find human emotion and memory to be complex, while the stunning complexity of "basic" functions is taken for granted. The truth that we learn does not give us a new set of eyes, per se, but allows us to use the same set to see the same things in a completely different way.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Readings on Light and Color --response by Danielle Breslin-Romano

One of my favorite quotes is by Georgia O'Keefe: "I found that I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn't say any other way...things I had no words for."  I find this quote especially interesting and applicable to the readings.  O'Keefe states that there is something color can say that cannot be expressed in words, yet the three authors we read are attempting to use words to describe color.

Livingstone gives us a more scientific explanation, starting with an explanation of light.  I found the history of different opinions of what exactly light was and how we perceived it to be very interesting.  Livingstone then goes into color, and the scientific explanation of how we see it, as well as different things like interference and diffraction.  She describes how the eye works, all about rods and cones.  Yet despite all of this scientific explanation, it still seems that there is a mystery about color that cannot be "explained," only experienced.

Arnheim gives us a wide-spread discussion of many facets of color.  He discusses color theory, but not the kind familiar to me (an artist's color theory).  The generative primaries and generative complementaries are such that I have never heard of before.  He also discusses, as Livingstone does, the inconsistency of color and how colors can "change" depending on their surroundings.  He writes, "In no reliable sense can we speak of color 'as it really is;' it is always determined by its context" (345).  I agree with this statement very much.  I think color is something that is always changing.  As an artist, you experiment with color.  The color that you see in the jar of paint usually does not appear exactly the same when you put it on the canvas because the colors around it affect it.  Also, certain colors will jump forward and others will go back.  I greatly enjoyed the experiment in the Livingstone book of the blue dots on the orange background, (although I thought the background to be more of a yellow-green than orange--yet another example of how difficult it is to talk about color because it is different for everyone).

Arnheim even says, "No one will be sure that his neighbor sees a particular color exactly the same way he himself does" (330).  That idea is especially intriguing to me as a painter who likes very much to use color.  I spend a lot of time mixing colors and experimenting with how different colors interact on the canvas.  When I complete a piece, I expect others to see the colors in my painting the same way I see the colors in my painting.  However, I cannot be sure that this is so; in fact, no one may see the painting the same way I see it.  This is interesting when thinking about the masters' paintings.  Even though we may not all see them in the same way, there is still a universal agreement that certain works of art are especially striking.  So what is it that makes them so?  Is it the colors, which are so fickle--they change in different lighting, fade in the sun and over time, and are incosistent--or is it the shapes?

Arnheim seems to place a lot of weight on shapes over colors.  He talks about an experiment with children in which the children were asked which the red square was more like, a blue square or a red circle?  He states, "As culture begins to train the children in practical skills, which rely on shape much more heavily than on color, they turn increasingly to shape as the decisive means of identification" (335).  I do not know if I agree with that statement.  Yes, I do think that society places a lot of emphasis on shape, but I think there is just as much emphasis on color.  Think about when you are asked to describe a person.  You do not only say words like, "tall" and "skinny," but you say, "blonde," "blue eyes," "pale skin."  Yet another example in when asked to identify a house.  Most people choose a color, like the "blue shutters," to distinguish their home among the others.  Think even of the name, "The Purple Door," used to identify the office of Operations and Facilities here at SLC.  Perhaps I am biased because color is such an important part of my life, but I would dare to say that society places an equal emphasis on color as on shape.

The section of the Arnheim reading that I found most interesting was the section on "Reactions to Color," because I thought that started to address the mysterious power of color.  He says, "We have not even a hypothesis to offer about the kind of physiological process that might account for the influence of color" (368).  He discusses some experiments that showed physical responses to color.  I know from personal experience the affect that color can have on your body physically.  Last year I took the year off because I was sick with a constant debilitating migraine.  During that period, there were certain colors that I could not bear to look at or wear.  Seeing or wearing those colors (the biggest offenders were orange, red, and yellow) would make my headache spike even more.

Out of all the readings, the one that I thought communicated the magic of color the most was Oliver Sack's "The Case of the Colorblind Painter."  Describing was a world without color must be like helped communicate how important and how wonderful color really is.  I can't imagine living in a world of gray scales, like Mr. I.  As he stated, color is a constant of this world, and if there is enough light, we see color.  That is part of how we identify something.  I think this makes an argument for the importance of color along with shape.  Although Mr. I did not have trouble seeing shapes, he did have trouble identifying objects in the beginning because of their lack of color.  Now, even the gray scale tint of one object would change depending on the light.  He lived in "a world whose lights and darks fluctuated with the wavelengths of illumination, in striking contrast to the relative stability, the constancy, of the color world he had previously known" (Sacks 21).  Here is an example of not only how brilliant color is and how much we would miss it, but how important it is in our daily functioning and how it is something that we take for granted.

I enjoyed all of the readings' different approaches on explaining/discussing color, but agree with Georgia O'Keefe that you can say things with color that cannot be said in words.