Scholarly article on topic 'Seeing -- by art and science'

Seeing -- by art and science Academic research paper on "Art (arts, history of arts, performing arts, music)"

Share paper
Academic journal

Academic research paper on topic "Seeing -- by art and science"

Perception, 2003, volume 32, pages 643-644



Seeing—by art and science

Spike Island is a large building in Bristol with a score of studios, where young artists work on wonderful creations. This is a fun ever-changing community of lively people concerned with art and the universe in general. Being asked to write something that might interest them, I have just written the following little essay. Is this a fair statement of how we think? Anyway, here it is:

Our knowledge of the object world, with its solidity and all manner of causal interactions, is needed for seeing and is reflected in how a picture appears. Splodges of paint accepted as houses take on a kind of solidity. We read a mind from life-less splodges seen as a human smile. For an architect, a picture of a building will be far richer than for the rest of us; of a ship, a sailor will note the set of the jib and all manner of features to which we are blind. For a scientist of wide interests, almost any picture may have rich meanings, including responses of eye and brain, and how they work to make seeing possible. This may encompass emotional responses, related to reactions of ancestral creatures many millions of years ago, and to our individual experiences, including of course from art. All this is projected into pictures, breathing life into their splodges.

One might say that this projection of meaning from knowledge into pictures is an extension of everyday reading of retinal images of ordinary objects, since the dawn of eyes. But man-made pictures are different from the photograph-like pictures in the eyes; for brains do not see retinal images. These pictures are not to be seen as objects including paintings are seen. It would need an eye behind the eye to see retinal images then another eye to see its image—forever—which gets nowhere. Retinal images are unique, as they are pictures and yet are not seen, though they are vital for seeing.

Paintings and photographs are objects; but are very peculiar objects for vision. For they have a double reality. The artist's picture is both splodges of paint on canvas and also something else. This might be a house, a ship, a person—a complex scene. The picture is both the object you can buy and touch, and the touch-less world of another space and time that it evokes in the brain. This is the double reality of pictures: objects in their own right evoking other worlds of facts and imagination. They work only for human eyes and brains, by calling upon and calling up human knowledge of the world we live in and dream about. Art is not bounded by physical reality; yet, as art depends on our knowledge of the world of objects—cannot appreciation of science enhance appreciation of art?

This double reality is not unique to pictures. Words share this magic. The word CAT is very different in form from the animal that mews and eats its way into your heart. Yet for English speakers, it means or stands for the animal though the word is a static shape and the cat is a moving living being. Pictures may also look very different from objects they represent—it is hardly art if they look similar!

What of perceptions of normal objects? Are our sensations of objects like their physical reality? The seventeenth century Scottish philosopher, John Locke, pointed out that qualia (as philosophers now call sensations) may be very different from what they stand for, much as CAT is very different from a cat. So the sensation of a red pillar box may be very different from the colour of the object. Indeed, Locke knew that this must be so, for he realised that objects are not themselves coloured, and light is not itself coloured—for colours are created by eyes and brains.


Without eyes and suitable brains there would be no colours in the universe. Yet we don't normally call colours illusions. With some knowledge of physics we know that colours are various wavelengths of light. With recent knowledge of brain physiology, we can touch the region of our head where the sensations are primarily created in the brain. Still mysterious is how the brain activity creates sensations, such as red. As always in science, what is available as an answer evokes further questions. Indeed, we don't only see with knowledge: we see, and want to see more, with the pull of unanswered questions.

Perception depends on knowledge that is implicit. Much is inherited from ancient life-death experiments of evolution, represented in the genetic code. (What is inherited, is brain structures representing information, perhaps much as CAT represents a cat. But it is a mistake to think that we see pictures in the brain; reading words is nearer to what, is believed, goes on in our heads.)

As knowledge, and also assumptions for filling gaps in knowledge, are so important, it should not be surprising that inappropriate knowledge and false assumptions cause illusions —cognitive illusions. But just as knowledge gives meaning, so errors of knowledge give errors; these illusions of perception being somewhat similar to delusions of conceptions. The rich and wonderful phenomena of illusions can reveal hidden knowledge and assumptions that normally give meaning to perceptions—and enrich art, though they can confuse science with artefacts.

Art plays upon the brain and mind by evoking illusions. Some of these, such as the jazzing of Op Art, are given by upsetting physiological signals from the eyes. Others, such as by misleading perspective and inappropriate object knowledge, are cognitive effects in the brain's 'software' we call the mind. Surely understanding these phenomena must help the artist. Yet, curiously little attention is paid in Art Schools to the rich and wonderful phenomena of perception and what causes them. Surely the artist's skill, developed over centuries, is very much to evoke and control illusions. Should this hard-won knowledge remain implicit?

How different are art and science? This is highly controversial. They are different, if only because the knowledge-base of perception is implicit and the knowledge-base of science is explicit. One might say that science explains while art evokes.

As science has developed understanding that is very different from appearances, we live in two worlds—appearances of perceptions, that are sometimes misleading; and conceptual understanding, which whether right or wrong may conflict with appearances. Perceptions and conceptions are our only kinds of knowledge; though neither is infallible, and we have illusions of perception and delusion of understanding that can be hard to recognise even when dramatic.

Science and art are growing further apart as science becomes ever more counterintuitive, so further from appearances, and science describes worlds we cannot see. Yet although they are different in aims and procedures, there are significant overlaps between evocative art and scientific understanding. Perhaps the similarities and differences, and what is shared, are not sufficiently considered for communicating across what are surely deep divides. Could shared interest in perception, and explaining how we see, be an effective bridge? Could explaining and using phenomena of perception link art and science? Could, indeed, their very different knowledge-bases be joined by unearthly illusions?

Perhaps the future for how we will see the world will be through Sciart. The effort, at least to have interest in both, is surely worthwhile if our minds can live in these two wonderful worlds of evocative art and explanatory science, hooked by questions from both.

Richard Gregory

ISSN 0301-0066 (print)

ISSN 1468-4233 (electronic)



Conditions of use. This article may be downloaded from the Perception website for personal research by members of subscribing organisations. Authors are entitled to distribute their own article (in printed form or by e-mail) to up to 50 people. This PDF may not be placed on any website (or other online distribution system) without permission of the publisher.