Here I present a summary of some ideas that help me make sense of the world around me. The information about the world that we interact with at a conscious level is not the same as the raw information our senses receive. It is heavily processed, and that’s good because it’s much more useful that way. The brain takes the messy real world input and tries to find what labels it has to describe everything. Then we can think about the world we see as the interaction of familiar objects that we have experience reasoning about. This article is about being aware of how this processing changes our reality often without us realising. I’m going to talk about drawing and then about stories and then frame both discussions as being part of a bigger idea. Also I make some claims about what constitutes ‘good’ art.


On processing visual information: 

You find a picture online that you would like to draw. Some advice: you will do a better job of copying it if you rotate it 180 degrees and draw it upside down. This should help with the form anyway, if you’re having trouble capturing areas of light and dark, try inverting the colours first and you should be able to pick them out better. This works because you’re hindering the brain’s ability to recognise what it’s looking at. When the picture is the right way up everything is given its familiar name. You see a face, eyes, nose, mouth, ears. But these labels aren’t helpful! Now they are labeled they seem like separate distinct features, but that is not how they appear as raw visual information. The visual truth knows nothing about nose and ears, just hue and brightness.


Trained artists will tell you the skill is as much about seeing as working with your medium. You learn to see what is really there rather than just what your brain gives labels too. Drawing without overcoming this processing results in more symbolic, cartoonish art. 


This skill of seeing past the labels your brain has assigned to things is not just useful for drawing. I believe much of what is described as ‘having an eye for it’ can be attributed to this second mode of sight. In photography it is the art of framing particularly interesting rectangles of light, colour and form (not entirely about what /things/ are being framed). In fashion similarly, forgetting /what/ is being worn and focusing simply on the visual impact that it has. The last thing to note is that although competency with this second mode of sight is a prerequisite for critical success in visual mediums, one should not aim to shun the first mode entirely. This is the part about good art, and self awareness. Hyper-realism is not the peak of artistic expression. The somewhat paradoxical interaction between what we think we see and what we really see is a fact of how we experience the world and acknowledging and toying with that relationship is a feature of much celebrated art. Both symbolism and realism have their place – being aware of their relationship is what is of value.


Now stories; After being shown a video of shapes (squares, circles) moving around and seemingly ‘interacting’ with one another, participants asked to describe the events of the video will say things like ‘the child square was playing outside and then they went inside and talked to the daddy square’. We are masters at constructing narratives to describe what we experience. It was the assumption of a study into how people with autism construct narratives that the types of stories we create to describe our experiences are a reflection of the way we understand the world (participants with autism told different stories to describe the events).


Much like the brain interprets varying intensities of light as different objects and scenes, the brain interprets collections of events as part of coherent narratives. Much like we perceive edges to the objects we see, we perceive narratives to have beginnings, ends, heroes, villains and morals. We are all prisoner to our own inclination to construct narratives. One can make the analogy that much like when drawing, where your ability to see what is in front of you is hindered by your brain’s labels, your ability accurately to explain what happens in your life is hindered by your brain’s construction of narratives.


While it could be fairly inconsequential to go through life without developing ‘an eye’ for aesthetics (by practicing drawing or otherwise), I believe the dangers of not questioning one’s tendency to understand life through narrative are much greater. There is no law of nature that says events must follow narrative structures we are familiar with, and yet the decider of what stories ‘ring true’ to us is how well it fits familiar structures. They inform our feelings about whether someone is lying. They inform the types of explanations we give for other people’s actions and behaviour. They inform the /predictions/ we make about how people will behave or act.They underpin the mental models we make for the world around us.


Like with visual art, good writers don’t shun the use of narrative structure, they acknowledge it and play with it. 


The take away: your brain works very hard for you to not have to interpret the messy nature of reality and only work with the highest yield pieces of information. This isn’t always helpful. Making sense of the world transforms the world. I have talked about seeing and about narratives but the same can be said for the words we use too. Where does blue end and green begin? The distinction is an arbitrary construction. What’s the difference between a bush and a shrub? In order to understand the world we draw borders around things and give them names. It is good to be reminded that these borders are just mental shortcuts.


By Joel Strouts



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