We construct what we see

I’ve been reading ‘Visual Intelligence’ a book by cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman. It is a fascinating book about the cognitive processes that are at the core of our visual system. 

The premise of Hoffman’s book, is that we ‘construct’ in our minds what we see. In essence, light comes in through the pupil of our eye and hits the retina, but from that point on, there is a lot of ‘visual processing’ that happens immediately, and in such an innate manner, that we aren’t even aware of doing it.

Let's consider these two statements from Hoffman’s book:

"The image at the eye has countless possible interpretations"

and

“The image at the eye is always two dimensional. You construct the third dimension”

In the famous Necker cube we see here, we are given a rare opportunity to observe our visual-intelligence working. Let's look at the cube:

 The Necker cube is an optical illusion first published as a rhomboid in 1832 by Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker. If you look at it for a while, you may see the cube in two different ways. Keep looking!

The Necker cube is an optical illusion first published as a rhomboid in 1832 by Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker. If you look at it for a while, you may see the cube in two different ways. Keep looking!

There are actually two ways in which we 'see' the cube. Sometimes we visualise the square marked here with letter A as being in front of the square marked here with letter B. Other times we see them the opposite way around. If you don’t, just keep looking. 

 Donald Hoffman's book about visual intelligence. If you're interested in why we 'see' the way we do, and why our brains are fooled by certain optical illusions, then this is the best book I've read to date on the subject of our visual system.

Donald Hoffman's book about visual intelligence. If you're interested in why we 'see' the way we do, and why our brains are fooled by certain optical illusions, then this is the best book I've read to date on the subject of our visual system.

I’ve been thinking for a long time, that the problem for us photographers is that our visual intelligence is so innate, so immediate, that we sometimes don’t actually ‘see’. 

I believe that our ‘visual-intelligence’ helps us only so far with our photography. And from a certain point it starts to hinder us. The adage that looking is not the same as seeing rings true here. We really have to work at being more visually aware because our visual-intelligence has its own agenda and often hi-jack's us into seeing things in a way that does not help us when creating images. 

For instance, our camera sees in 2D while we do not. So in order to be able to visualise our images we have to be able to look at a scene in 2D. This is very hard because our visual intelligence is so innate that we can't help ourselves but see everything in 3D. It takes effort to see something in 2D. (Interestingly each of our eyes receives a 2D visual image and it is our visual intelligence that is responsible for automatically constructing a 3D interpretation).

To be a good photographer, we almost need to un-see the 3D construction that our visual-intelligence innately makes for us, so we can notice if one object that is in front of another will merge when flattened down in to a 2D image.

If you’re interested in this subject (as I feel all photographers really should be), then I’d recommend Hoffman’s book. It’s very well written.