The Tree and the trees
A few months ago, I began reading about something called "visual release hallucinations".
In neuroscience, the term "release" has always fascinated me. It denotes that the phenomenon preexisted, but up until now, was held back by the inhibitory functions of the brain. In receiving sensory information from the external world, the brain copies, analyzes, and reinvents the information it receives, and then treasures it up for future use. In a very real sense, there is a whole other, invented world, housed inside our minds. Visual release hallucinations, otherwise known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS), tend to concur with the partial or total loss of eyesight. What this means is that, in the absence of external information, the brain simply supplies its own.
People with CBS (unlike people with psychosis) are usually aware that their hallucinations are not real. CBS hallucinations also have some characteristic qualities—they tend to be composed of objects and spaces that are plausible, but almost never familiar. This is because they are thought to derive from a categorical image library in the brain, without much participation from the brain's emotional centers. They are purely neurological hallucinations. They derive from a lower level of visual perception, where there is a dictionary of what researchers refer to as proto-objects or proto-images. Proto-images are a set of generic objects and object features—similar to a wooden art manikin, or those how-to books for drawing everyday things. By filling in common components of one's normal environment, visual models made from proto-images greatly speed up visual cognition. They facilitate object recognition and guide visual attention. However, by themselves, proto-images have no emotional or intellectual significance—they are simply building blocks for visual perception.
One man with Charles Bonnet Syndrome saw a red double-decker bus drive through his living room. Close inspection of the bus would reveal any amount of detail, but there would not be anything surprising, or unexpected, to see. The bus was a generic bus, composed of the thousands of red tourist busses the man had seen any number of times on his daily walks through London. It was likely modelled on the very first such bus he could remember seeing— his image prototype, later elaborated by all the red tourist busses he saw subsequently.
The most interesting part is, what we see is primarily composed of proto-images, not from the world around us, as we suppose. The brain, even before it perceives the environment, creates a model based on what it expects to see. This provides a rudimentary impression and directs our visual attention to discrepancies between our proto-image model and the real world. For instance, the bedroom we see when we open our eyes in the morning is the bedroom we expect to see. If the cat has knocked over a lamp in the night, we see it at once because the room then fails to match up with our visual model. The external world is thus used as a kind of memory storage. When we use language, we are accessing our brain's library of words, phrases, and grammatical templates. In visual perception, the "memory" we refer to is sensory data, continuously supplied by the external world.
I didn't know it at the time, but I actually started making art about visual expectations back when I was an undergrad in college. The director of the art department had sneered at my portfolio, calling it "illustrative" in the same tone of voice you'd use while wrinkling your nose at an overdone dish and ordering the waiter to take it away. I loved making the intensely detailed drawings I'd always made, and I would make as much work for myself as I could possibly fit on the page. The end result was hardly important. I'd sit happily, drawing tiny details for hours, using whatever imagery came to mind. I never used any reference, and, while I certainly recognized that drawing from life improved my technique, life drawing never felt like art to me—it felt like practice. I discovered that I had to reconcile a heavily stylized aesthetic with the big, abstract ideas I wanted to explore.
I didn't think much of the art director himself—even at age 20, I could see that a person who assumed that certain styles of art couldn't be about big ideas, must be using snobbery as a foil of some kind. Nevertheless, I knew I had to start thinking about how my work might come across to others; I had find a way to connect my inner world to the shared outer world. My solution was to combine drawing from life with drawing from my imagination, to start exploring what exactly the difference was. I started drawing maps of familiar places from memory, and overlaying them on top of real maps. I got interested in how the things from my imagination did and did not line up with the things from life.
The best thing I made at this time was a painting of a tree. I painted what I thought of when I thought of a tree, the way I was used to: from memory. Next I went in search of real trees on campus (I was lucky to be attending Vassar College, whose entire campus is actually a large arboretum) that seemed iconic to me, reminding me of the Tree of my imagination. I color-coded them, and plotted out the different trees over the top of my proto-Tree, following their branch structure and internal architecture, trying to fit them together. It was the first piece of artwork I valued for its own sake, not just for the delight I got in making it. I gave it to a very dear friend four years ago, and I've made other artwork that I've loved since, but in many ways "Tree" will always be the most special and meaningful, and the most beloved art I've ever made, because it was the first.
In a sense, all the art I made after that was an effort to fit the style I had developed as a kid—madly doodling angels and devils in my school notebooks—into the world around me. When I learned about the brain's library of proto-images, I felt strangely vindicated. There is no such thing as real life. What we see begins with what we expect to see. Our world is unavoidably framed by our own content, supplied by the vast content of our imaginations. What the artists of the Italian Renaissance called "artifice" forms the foundation of how we experience everything around us. Objectivity is what is really artificial (Ceci n'est pas une pipe!), but why should we expect ourselves to be objective? Why not embrace the insights and beauties of our human, subjective understanding?
In the visual-cognitive loop, our minds are in continual conversation with the world around us. We assemble a model of what we expect to see, receive sensory feedback, and modify our model, again and again and again.
The mind's model and world will never match, but they will always strive to meet.
And the mind and the world will always strive to meet, because they will never match.