Friday, December 12, 2008

Teaching Illusion

When I first began studying the brain, thirty-some years ago, it was primarily with the purpose of seeing what useful information the science of perception had to offer a visual artist. The gestalt psychologists of the mid-twentieth century had developed a body of research that showed how visual elements were decoded and how the underlying assumption of gravity affected our sense of what we were seeing. Since art is processed by the same mechanisms as the real world everything I read was relevant and the research was growing fast. I was hooked. The specifics of the eye/brain pathways were fascinating and complex and led to understanding how the stimulus that hit the retina was processed into what we perceived. By adding visual change that would be processed unconsciously I could create stronger illusions of space and volume. Drawing convincing spatial effects and then contradicting them with equally convincing spatial effects enabled me to suggest to the viewer how wrong what we think is real can be.
Teaching a class in illusionism is an ongoing education in just how individually the same perceptual mechanisms can be applied. The brain maps what we know, but what’s included in the map is entirely individual. To demonstrate the visual component of memory I asked my students how many windows were in the house where they grew up. Because I was such an indoor person as a child, I always counted the windows by walking mentally from room to room inside the house. Jeff, on the other hand was counting by walking around the house. This shows how even while our brains are using the same structuring principle to map our experience, the map is forged from the terrain of our own behavior. The structure of our lived experience becomes the armature for future knowledge. This gives a deep spatial component to how our knowledge is organized in our Mind (what we experience)/ Brain (the physical organ). We learn by firming up new circuits in our brains through re-imagining the new information in relation to other information in our minds. The correspondence of one pattern to another (isomorphism) in entirely different systems underlies our ability to understand new experience and is the basis for analogy and metaphor and our use of overt visual representations like maps and diagrams.
Most of us have had the experience of seeming to disagree or get caught in an argument when both people were really saying the same thing. The disagreement came from a clash in how they used language to express their particular twist on the same pattern. Rather than get caught in opposition, a more interesting conversation would grow from learning about the different ways we experience human life. We learn more from difference, and as we understand the unfamiliar we discover how similar we are at deep levels as beings that move in space.
Whenever we talk about art, we experience resonance with deep patterns of being. The way that each individual experiences those patterns is stirred, and the dynamics within personal memories may be clarified by the image that provoked them. As a class discusses their work, I try to pull out the whole range of ideas the image suggests so we can better understand what’s implicated by different visual relationships. A wide spectrum of associations demonstrates the variety of ways that the same patterns can be experienced. We can see how the range of views fits into a larger picture and be less likely to get caught in the confines of a right/wrong conversation. Looking and talking about art nourishes our understanding of wholes. It develops our sensitivity to significant pattern and our intuition about what matters. As a fringe benefit of training a new generation of illusionists I see the rich variety in individual worldviews that is often suppressed by the wind of prevailing theory. Having more, wide-ranging images of deeper realities may set us free to think what we really think while feeling more connected at the core. It may enable us to take an evolutionary step.

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