Visual Perception Part 2

More than any of our other senses, we tend to trust our sense of sight. So much so, that one often hears the phrase “seeing is believing”. Should we trust our eyes as much as we do? As Beau Lotto demonstrates in his TEDtalk featuring optical illusions, our eyes are constantly being fooled. We do not see things as they really are; we see them as it is useful to see them. We see values and colors and our brain makes sense of these things and they become objects. We notice one red thing among many green things more than we notice one green thing among many green things. We pick out human faces and remember physical objects more than their shadows. In art, it can be hard to draw or paint what you are actually seeing, rather than what you think you are seeing. The more you forget that a face is a face, and look at it simply as lines and colors, the easier it is to draw it realistically. But you do have to look at it periodically as a face to make sure you are on track. It is good to be able to flit in and out of these two kinds of seeing, or thinking. Does our way of thinking affect our way of seeing the world or does our way of seeing the world affect our thinking? Maybe both.

We see the world as a bunch of visual codes. People with visual agnosia are unable to recognize these codes of shapes and lines. Some people are better at recognizing these visual codes than others (women might be better at recognizing living things). There are also the more complex codes of symbols, words, and camera effects (which are discussed in the TEDed video “Technical Codes) that affect our way of thinking. These codes can persuade us to do something or feel a certain way whether we are aware of them or not. According to a recent study done by the University of Warwick that people are faster at recognizing a downward facing triangle, which can make us feel threatened as it suggests a face with a negative expression, such as anger. Even though people had been unaware of this visual code, we can look of examples of character villains, like Cruella de Vil and the Joker, and see that their creators have utilized this downward facing triangle in their v-shaped features. Facial expressions hold a lot of visual power, and it turns out that facial features do, too. What other visual codes might be out there, affecting the way in which we see the world, that we are not even aware of?

What codes for beauty? What makes us think that something is beautiful? Recently, several studies have come out, (like this one or this one) discussing the way in which slight differences in symmetry can lead us to believe something is more attractive. More symmetrical features and bodies are seen as a sign of physical fitness, which is one of the factors we must use in determining whether or not someone is beautiful. But, as Mr. Seymour points out in his TEDtalk on beauty, we can label a face as beautiful just by looking at half of it. So obviously, symmetry is not the only factor. Another factor is probably familiarity, which they discuss in the science of attraction videos, in which they show people photos of their face as they would see it in a mirror, and a picture of their face as it looks to other people. Because people are used to seeing themselves in a mirror, they usually liked the flipped photo better. Their romantic partners usually chose the other photo because that was the way that they saw their boyfriend/girlfriend. When we become more familiar with things, we are able to see the beauty in them more easily.

Does having better vision, or being able to see and sense more, make the world more beautiful? Do people with synesthesia see a more beautiful world? If we enhance our senses, will the world be more beautiful? Or simply more confusing?

I think familiarity really helps something to feel beautiful intrinsically. Even if it something is new to us personally, it might be similar to something in nature or more natural than we realize. Or we might be associating it with something good that we have experienced before, such as (as Mr. Seymour discusses) the lights turning off slowly in a car, and the lights turning off slowly in a movie theater (does this gradual fading remind us of the sunset?). But what made that first experience beautiful? Perhaps it all has to do with chemicals in the brain. When we are in a movie theater, we are anticipating something, which releases dopamine, which makes us feel happy. How much does anticipation feature in our conceptions of beauty?

Our culture affects our conception of beauty because it tells us what is beautiful by connecting women and men that look a certain way with power, wealth, and happiness. Connotation can make something more beautiful, which is also something that Mr. Seymour discusses. Something can be intrinsically beautiful (like a drawing done by a little girl) and extrinsically beautiful (like a drawing you know a little girl did right before she died of cancer). Many things are both. Things can become more beautiful the more you know about them (as well as more ugly…). Why does context matter so much? And why are sad things beautiful? What makes something tragic and something else tragically beautiful?

What makes something intrinsically beautiful? Do we see beauty? We must not be seeing it if context affects our perception of beauty. So do we think beauty? Or do we feel beauty? When one thinks of the drawing that the little girl did right before she died, you feel something. It tugs at your heartstrings. Things that are truly beautiful create a physical sensation. They give us the chills; they make us shudder or laugh or weep. We experience them; we feel beauty.

But why do we think or feel beauty? What advantage is there to recognizing something as beautiful?

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