Our eye finds it more comfortable to respond to a given stimulus by reproducing once more an image that it has produced many times before instead of registering what is different and new in an impression. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Perception of change is key to any profession. In law, attorneys may find themselves overlooking discrepancies in a story, which result in the failure to discover hidden truths and underlying meanings. Instead, the mind perceives patterns, which are illusions and maybe rather expectations, sort of like preconceptions imprinted on the back of the eye.
In their book, The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons take on this very subject. Their scientifically justified argument follows along the lines that the way our minds insist on seeing things distorts the truths. We may make associations by false intuition and see causes that are not there. How startling it is to realize that absolutely everyone, nobody excluded, goes through their days this way, letting our illusions govern both our minds and actions, because of the way our minds want to work. We have to find ways to correct the ways we project our subjectivity on reality.
In general, humans like to construe narratives no differently than we form Gestalts of things. Just like we put together a picture, we link together a trajectory of facts, making connections, which are actually based on assumptions, and determine an underlying meaning. The reality of things, which a lot of well-trained doctors know, is that sometimes it’s the random things that matter the most. Inquiring minds look for the exceptions and the discrepancies in facts.
History has left it to artists to unveil truths and short-circuit the mind’s weaknesses. One way they have done that is by examining variable change. Certainly, the Impressionists were maybe the first to explore what scientists and philosophers had discovered about vision. In the twentieth-century even Conceptual artists grasped how mind and eye work together.
Take, for example, the Germans Bernd and Hilla Becher. They explored the vast countryside of Germany looking for old water towers and barns, photographing them in the display of a grid, as if creating a taxonomy of facts. But the way in which a kind of somber redundancy pervades the variability reveals the conflicts of psychological repression and inner denial because everything is grouped uniformly together. Suddenly, in one grasp of the display an enormity of information is lumped into a generalized whole, no different than how the mind serves a reductive function in the face of more information than is possible to take in at once.
People overcome this tendency to repress differentials when they train the mind to question what they are seeing so that they may better see what is not there. The best way to conquer our biases is to question them, which helps us suddenly build a different picture with the eye. Photographers achieve this by reframing the same subject. Rather than emphasizing uniformity like the Bechers, they stress variability. Connections we make in our mind then appear to be mere illusions. We become aware of our own biases.
To follow Chabris and Simons, the problems we solve, the solutions we find – the narratives of reality we construe -- necessitate cognitive training so that we see alternative paths. Artists themselves are on this alternative path. Each pursues a path to unveil a truth outside of the accepted narrative. It is from them we can learn, for they know best, what it takes to reveal a way from illusion to insight.