Magical Vision – Seeing What Isn’t There


Taking a stroll walking the dog a few evenings ago as the sun was going down I noticed that as it got darker I was experiencing a transition in my human vision processing system. Something that happens all of the time, but we seldom pay attention to it while it is happening. When the light is good, we pick out details and texture information. Edges define boundaries and the space between things. We interpret distance and notice sudden movements of things. But as it gets darker and darker there is a transition to shape based interpretation. There isn’t enough information to identify details and texture, so it would seem that the brain (my brain anyway) transitioned to processing shapes. The mood changed and sounds seemed to take on a different character that directed the direction of my gaze much more so than when it was lighter.  The experience of walking and looking around definitely made a transition as it got darker and darker to something quite different.

This experience got me thinking about all of the different ways that we look at things and experience the space that we occupy. We have vision comfort zones where we are casual observers and don’t pay much attention to what we are looking at. Indeed, we can almost shut off our conscious analysis of the visual data streaming in from our eyes while we engage our attention thinking about something or talking on the phone or listening to music. When it is too dark to make out the informational details, we engage our imagination and try to find shapes and patterns that are familiar in the darkness.

It would seem that there are many modes to seeing. A few of the modes could be described as experiential, referential, interpretive, imaginative, detail, abstract, conscious and subconscious. And each one of those modes are impacted by the type of illumination and amount of illumination. Indeed, it would seem to me that sound, smell and state of mind  equally impact these various modes. Quickly, it becomes obvious that what goes on in the human vision processing system is far more complex than we give it credit for.  What we perceive and what we see are two different things that are dependant upon an exponentially large number of random possibilities. Yet, out of what should be confusing xaos that causes us to lose our minds – we make no special effort to see things and process vision in our brains instantly in ways that we don’t even think about.  It is simple and automatic. We make all of the transitions effortlessly. When you step back for a second, however, and think about how limited our vision processing system is – only two eyes with limited luminance dynamic range, limited frequency bandwidth, distorted optics and field of view, persistence of vision or amount of individual time slices that can be interpreted independently. All of those limitations don’t occur to us because the brain fills in the blanks and we are ignorant of what we are missing.

Maybe this explains why we put such a high priority on esthetics and subjective interpretation. We are wired to simplify the complexity down to chunks that are easily absorbed and found useful. Yet, at the same time we are attracted to high levels of detail when we are interested in something. Stereovision helps to bridge the gap between providing a potential exponential increase in information, on demand when needed and a processing system that is simple enough to parse out only the bits of visual information that we need to have to not overwhelm our ability to make sense out of what we are looking at. It would seem that our vision system has evolved into a very carefully balanced high level system of links to different thought processes and interpretations and emotional experiences that instantly trigger response at the subconscious level.  What is interesting is that we have the ability to go far beyond our current capabilities. To see things in new ways with biomechanical appliances and add dramatically to the capabilities of our vision processing system.  Indeed, much will be revealed in the future that shows what we see now isn’t “real” at all. What we see in the year 2013 is magical vision that filters out things that our brains haven’t decided are useful… yet.

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