CNN’s web site recently had a piece called “Don’t believe your lying eyes” by R. Beau Lotto. Lotto, the founder of a hybrid art studio and science lab in London called Lottolab, says that what we see is not necessarily what we are actually looking at:
Seeing lightness and color are the simplest sensations the brain has. And yet even at this most basic level we never see the light that falls onto our eyes (called the retinal image) or even the real-world source of that image.
Rather, neuroscience research tells us that we only ever see what proved useful to see in the past. Illusions are a simple but powerful example of this point. Like all our perceptions, we see illusions because the brain evolved not to see the retinal image, but to resolve the inherent “meaninglessness” of that image by continually redefining normality, a normality that is necessarily grounded in relationships, history and ecology.
He argues that this fact is a key to understanding ourselves and the world around us:
Understanding this point is I believe critical to personal and social well-being, since the typical barrier to a deeper insight into oneself and others is the overriding, but necessarily false impression that what “I” see, what “I” hear and what “I” know is the world as it really is.
While Lotto’s work appears to be just one more example of the uncertainty that seems to ripple through so much of life today, it may help us actually deal with it:
Resolving uncertainty is essential to our survival. Hence our fear of ambiguous situations is palpable — e.g., the inability to resolve sensory conflict between the eyes and ears can result in nausea (like seasickness). And yet it is only by embracing the unknown within education, science, art and most importantly within our own private lives that we will find new routes to more enlightened ways of seeing and being.