Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Attention and Illusion

The popularity of illusions has persisted throughout human history because they make people pay attention, and paying attention feels good. Most often the word illusion is connected to magic, the range of stage and parlor tricks that fool people into thinking something has disappeared or appeared in a new place. Amazement stimulates dopamine, which stimulates more interest and alert involved awareness that tries to puzzle out what really happened. In their book “Sleight of Mind”, neurologists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik write, “Magic tricks work because humans have a hard-wired process of attention and awareness that is hackable.” What this means is that if you understand how to trigger visual processing that occurs on an unconscious level you can get people to believe something about what they’re seeing that’s not actually true. Stages of processing are hierarchical. Something getting bigger really fast on your visual field will instigate a dodging motion before you know what’s going to hit you. EEG’s show a spike when we see a forty-five degree angle even if we know it’s just a streak on the wall. We look at anything that seems to be in motion. We freeze in order to avoid attention. Large-scale motion is just one of the first level signals for immediate action. The smell of smoke will hold attention until the cause is found. Anything signaling a threat to survival sits at the top of perceptual priorities with fast automatic action and attention. From there extends a spectrum of perceptual priorities that find boundaries, separate objects, establish point-of-view and eventually cross into conscious awareness. Understanding these perceptual priorities allows us to intervene at levels of processing that are still unconscious to direct the audience or viewer’s attention without their awareness. Controlling attention is the essence of any kind of illusion and requires skillfulness to actually accomplish. It depends on understanding the unconscious priorities, what is hard wired to draw attention and undercut conscious control. All illusion, whether trompe l’oeil drawing and painting or stage magic, depends on manipulating preconscious attention. The magician has you watch one hand while the other is setting up the result. In the business they call it misdirection. In drawing it’s more a matter of truth to the retinal image. What we see has undergone many levels of processing. Finding and using the signals not consciously noticed stimulates more brain activity guiding expectations in the direction wanted. 

The practice of illusionistic drawing trains attention and ability to focus. They are the necessary skills to keep a viewer under your spell. Watching people looking at work in the gallery, the ones that held attention like magnets were intricately detailed deep space fantasies amazing in the level of skillfulness. The investment of attention reaped an investment in the viewer. Whether a person likes that kind of work or not it has the ability to fascinate. And it can be put to work to draw attention to any subject, idea or feeling an artist wants. Pulling people out of their heads and into a different world is a power that benefits everyone.

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