Seeing the Forest for the Trees: How Perception Allows us to See the Big Picture

Judgment is synthesis.  An integrating experiences, which draws upon sensations and are processed in both the cognitive and affective areas of the brain.  As John Dewey writes, it is a process without rules and therefore guided by intuition and tacit understanding.   He writes:


Analysis, discrimination, must result in unification.  For to be a manifestation of judgment it must distinguish particulars and parts with respect to their weight and function in formation of an integral experience.  John Dewey, Art as Experience


That is; we form a perception of something.  Without doing this, we lose sight of the overarching judgment or conclusive impression and rather only see the discrete parts. 


The role of affect plays an important role in our ability to make judgments.  In psychology and aesthetics, this element of processing perceptions is called the top down effect.  Sometimes those top down processes can serve to inhibit our cognitive abilities. When we’re confronted with an overarching perception that arouses negative emotions, studies show that there is a tendency to narrow down on the particulars because the whole inhibits pleasure.  In effect, this inhibits our abilities to make judgments. 


Secondly, our cognitive abilities are affected by habits of attention.  The brain seems to work selectively, drawing upon those things that conform to previous experiences and even stereotypes.  The brain can therefore serve to block out breakthroughs into conscious awareness.  In fact, inattentive blindness is one of the most common pitfalls of mistaken beliefs.  Sometimes we can put together repeated elements of something that misguide our estimation of an overall problem.  We may carry the illusion of the easiest solution to something being blind of some larger issue.  And when we do see that larger issue, our perception of those discrete elements take on different characteristics. 


To take the example of a work of art, consider Picasso’s Guernica.  The painting depicts the horrors of war, and the message unravels as we explore the image.  We fee a dispersal of our perceptions, which seem to land on the most identifiable and realistic fragments of the painting.  In empathetic response, we connect to each of these elements, finding associations for all of the horrors of human tragedy.  There is enough realism in the picture to arouse emotional responses in even the most illiterate art viewer.  We look for what we can both identify with but also find add to the novelty of experiences.   

Pablo Picasso, Guernica.jpg

The overarching challenge of Guernica is to be able to understand the entirety of the painting.  This challenges our ability to process things in complexity.  While some degree of complexity can add to the novelty of a work of art, too much of it can amount to confusion.  Picasso makes this complex statement understandable by the way he creates an organic connectiveness among the parts to bring together the larger impact of the composition.   So here we go from the discrete parts to the overall judgment.


Judgment as an operation of perception demands that we put things together.  Upon close examination of the picture, we see a general structure, such as how we can divide up the picture into three sections, or statements.  The two far ends compare with how women pushed back into a macabre darkness toss back their heads as they let our shrill screams of terror.  And then we are brought to the middle where we see a kind of pyramid divided into a light and dark half with the dark side about death and the right side in light about survival.  While there may be many meanings to the painting, for it is fraught with narrative ambiguity, there are also many solutions.  One might be how the horrors of war are powerfully symbolized in the image of womankind. 


Seeing the forest for the trees in judgment of larger problems requires that we exercise this skill of both discrete and structural analysis.  We can go beyond the literal meaning of the painting to infer a conclusion about what is inhumane.  In fact, the picture makes more sense this way even though when we go back to the theme of war, we also recognize the metaphors in the painting.  The same situation also applies to any kind of conceptualization of a business strategy, invention of any sort, legal issue, or medical diagnosis.