On Photography – Lights In Your Head
November 6, 2007
Your brain is located in your head, according to Wikipedia. After this astonishing discovery, Wikipedia states that the human brain contains more than 100 billion neurons, each linked to as many as 10,000 other neurons. Let’s see, that means the poor thing has to deal with 10 quadrillion neurons. I really have only a dim idea what neurons are and know even less about what quadrillions of them might do to me. Apparently, they look like this:
So now you know what’s in your head: quadrillions of tiny worm look-alike things. Somehow, these worms deal with light, color, visions, creativity, math and all the rest of the stuff we believe we “know”. Moreover, these things can be several feet long, stretching from the base of the spine to the feet. They communicate with each other through various electrical and chemical means, all of which sounds like a Hollywood horror C movie.
They allow us to drive cars, walk, make love, hate the boss, watch “Police Academy III” and have opinions on photography. They tell us we are lonely, hungry, horny or just bored. Busy little things, those worms in your head. More complex than an O. J. Simpson murder case or a George W. Bush statement on Global Warming, the War on Terror and Progress in Iraq, there is no hope of understanding how the brain really works. Only politicians can deal with quadrillions of things, especially in regard to your tax bill and Air Force toilet seats. Humans can’t.
Yet for all the mystery, even a few quadrillions eager little worms don’t do the job that well. The brain is easily fooled as many simple little pop science graphics can prove. Lines that look bent but aren’t. Dot’s that rotate bur really don’t. That is in spite of consuming most of the human energy requirements and thus being responsible for Global Warming.
The brain might get sick and cause all kinds of problems. Even when healthy it can cause completely irrational things to happen. Example. I live in Seattle but every weekend I eagerly await the UK Times Sunday magazine and its reviews of London restaurants. There is close to zero chance I’ll ever visit any of these restaurants but apparently some little worm in my head suffers from Britophilia. Perhaps this is due to how the Brits endured the Blitz, David Beckham, Prince Charles and “The Office”. Who knows.
Even more amazingly, I know others suffer from the same irrational phobia. People write these Times critics from all over the World, having opinions on meals they will never have. Just last weekend, a fellow Seattlie commented on the alcoholism of one of the critics who also received a “thatta Scot” from someone with a Spanish name in Texas. Another critic receives criticism because he tends to mention his girl friend too often. The third critic (yes, the Times have three restaurant critics) is frequently called an old goat and perhaps he is. Every week this old goat publishes a photo of himself with some recent girl friend.
The Times also features a chef more famous for his record setting use of the f_ _k word on TV than his cooking. There is also a “motor” columnist who probably should be locked up as well. Said critic recently declared that “he likes cars to telegraph their intentions through the fabric of his underpants. He likes them (the cars? the intentions? the underpants?) to be crisp and responsive and loud and powerful. He confesses: “But I am unusual”. Indeed.
Of course, brains are associated with all kinds of things. Brainpower stands for a Dutch Rapper. Eggs and brains are a popular breakfast item many parts of the World, including Britain and Portugal. The Honorable US Congressman from North Carolina, Howard Coble’s web site headlines his favorite recipe for Brains and Eggs. The French like their Tete de Veau, the Mexicans their Tacos de Sesos. The US South eat squirrel brains, Indonesians like brains with coconut milk. The Mad Cow Disease might sober the demand for some of these delicacies. 3rd Rock From the Sun aired their Brains and Eggs episode in 1996 (Voted 9.0 or Superb).
There are the Brains of Bahrain – a chess match – and the former TV show of Brains & Brawns, nowadays referring to downloadable cell phone ring tones. Braintree is a city in Mass., USA. The Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble makes Mozart recordings. Brains is a popular brewery in Wales. Mad scientists dream of Brains in a Vat. Let’s not forget the No Bra movement of the 1960s.
So this occasionally irrational brain and its electric worms handle our visionary system. Not only does it allow judgments on wide reaching subjects such as Michael Jackson’s nose, Britney Spears’ hairdo and the girl friends of English restaurant critics., it also permits judgments on our photography. It makes us claim one photo is better than another. It declares that some photos are obscene. Or romantic, revolutionary, boring, charming or the like. It ignores the fact that it is the brain that not only creates the opinions but also the images themselves. The brain worms receive electrical impulses derived from the amplitudes and frequencies of light and then fools us into believing we see reality. There is no reality.
Some of this post is an update and extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography” as well as On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality. Other posts include On Photography – Trick and Treat of Light and On Reality 6 Rev. – Jeff Wall Magic Revisited.
Light’s in Your Eyes
Superficially, our eyes share some characteristics with a camera. Eyes have lenses, irises and corneas that work like aperture and focusing controls. Eyes understand and adjust for different light levels. There is a retina back end consisting of seven layers of light sensitive receptors that pass information to our brains. The eyes’ focusing, aperture and light controls are infinitely more sensitive and fast than those of any camera, however costly or “digitally advanced”.
Do our eyes accurately record the Truth and pass it on to the brain? No. Eyes have limitations. Some of us are near sighted; a few are far sighted or perhaps color blind. Others are blind, or nearly so. Not to forget crossed or wandering eyes. To older people, focus muscles are worn out. The eyes may contract illnesses. The lenses and corneas are easily damaged. Many lenses are shaped in an inaccurate way, resulting in distortions. The receptors may get temporarily blinded by sudden surges in light levels.
There are big businesses involved in fixing your eyes. Eye glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses eat up billions of our dollars while introducing even more distortions. Many of these devices change the focus and color of the light reaching your eyes. Some even change to color of the eyes themselves. Surgery chains happily operate on your eyes at a remarkably low price, changing your point of view again.
The eyes and the rest of the visual system do not operate on light or colors the way a camera does. The human system transforms the light entering the eyes to initially straight lines that eventually combine into curved lines and contours. Colors and light levels are judged by comparing the curves. Colors are no longer represented by K values or any other ordinary system. Light is no longer measured by absolute levels, as is done in the photo cell of a light meter. The process of interpreting all these lines, contours and relative levels introduces yet another level of inaccuracy. It is the basis of the many illusions with which some (such as psychiatrists) like to work or play.
It really is just plain weird. The brain tells us something is blue. Yet the information it based this opinion on has nothing to do with “blue” – not even the abstract “real” representation of amplitudes and wave length. The eyes and the brain have its own way of “colorizing” our world. In the external world, blue is represented by that vibration deal. Internally – in your brain – blue is associated not with vibrations but some other poorly understood collection of lines, form, chemicals, tiny electric impulses and no doubt stuff like enzymes and ultimately DNA. Beats me.
Add the analog feature of our eyes and visual system. There is no such thing as one view of our surroundings. The eyes constantly receive new information. They react to the information in an eternal cycle of adjustments. Most of us have two eyes. Each eye receives a two dimensional view. The visual system combines the two dimensional views into a three dimensional view. Take that, you one-eyed, two dimensional cameras.
Think about it. Your tiny eyes have incomparable power and flexibility relative to any camera at any price and size. But accurate – don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry.
Fooled by your Brain
The brain does fix it all, in a manner of speech. It is in complete charge of our perceptions. It even adds a whole emotional dimension to the information from the eyes. Of course, the brain controls the eyes themselves, not to mention all of you. A regular control freak, your brain is. But whatever the brain decides to present to you is the truth because you have no source for a second opinion.
The trouble is we don’t quite understand what our brain does with that relatively straight forward stream of distorted light entering the eyes. We can’t control the process. We do know that what we see is an interpretation created by the brain. What are the rules for this interpretation? Here you enter a real complex issue studied by many very clever people with lots of theories, some of which are contradictory.
One theory states that the brain creates an interpolated view that is based on incomplete information from the eyes. This, again, explains the visual illusions mentioned earlier. Manipulate the incomplete information reaching the brain and it makes predictably bad decisions. There are various theories how this interpretation works, such as the one claiming the brain uses the complex math of Bayesian science.
Most theories agree that the brain is not an impartial recorder or interpreter of truth. It receives input from the eyes and all our other sensors. It examines the input, compares it to prior input (“experience”, “knowledge”) in its database and modifies the original input to make it more understandable and safer. Take, for instance, the novice 911 medic. The first job experiences are extremely traumatic but become routine fairly quickly. The work isn’t getting easier but that the brain distorts the reality to protect the worker. The same goes for novice soldiers entering their first battle. Later they become seasoned veterans as their brains and experience database kicks in its protective circuits.
In a more peaceful world, how many times have you used the expression “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” as applied to practically anything. The brain learns from experience and applies it to any similar situation in the future. The phenomenon of “deja vu” is similar. A new input is suddenly associated with a previous experience that may or may not be real. Theories abound on how this works, but suffice to say that the brain is quite prepared to play games with you.
The brain also makes basic assumptions such as that light is usually coming from above. It relies on prior experience to produce a predicable, safe interpretation. It is almost like the old (very outdated) saying in IT circles: You will never go wrong by buying IBM. The brain produces an image that it thinks you will like. It even goes as far as making sure that image won’t hurt you too much.
Then there is the “Gestalt” theory. It states that the brain receives a bunch of sub components of the visual image. The brain then combines these sub components into the whole according to a set of rules. This theory claims the brain uses six distinct rules to achieve its goal: perhaps, perhaps not.
Other theories claim the rules depend on personality, race, gender, occupation, education, age, attitudes and values and so on. I suppose that makes intuitive sense. A different theory discards most of this theory: the brain receives sufficient information and does not make interpretations.
The brain is not really concerned with accuracy the way most of us erroneously take for granted. I already mentioned that the brain distorts the visual input as it tries to protect us from the ugliness around us. This is similar to how the nervous system shuts down to shield us from the effects of a serious injury. The brain goes beyond that mechanism. It adds an emotional context to the picture we might be looking at. Stuff look differently depending on our mood. It adds impulses from our social context or internal data base as mentioned. It also considers the current context – time of day, weather, stress level, alertness, cosmic cycles, UFOs – on and on it goes.
Here you are: a full circle and total confusion. Does this sound like the visual system capable of presenting Reality? Is it even designed to show Reality? The simple answers are No and No. On top of all the other distortions, the brain adds/filters out its own version of Reality. It’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Don’t look for accuracy or “Truth” here. Sorry. Jack Nicholson cried out to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth”. How true.
What about Photography?
Art such as photography is occasionally (often? always?) just a game of manipulating a viewer, client or buyer. We, as artists, wish to interfere with that brain mechanism that the world perceives as “reality”. We want to provoke an emotional response. We wish to show something being not quite what others expect. We use our own emotional and social contexts and experiences to provoke interest. We try to picture and present the World based on our own perceptions, biases and pet opinions. Given that, us artists should be very happy our brains help support these illusions. Or whatever.