Updated: Feb 7
Art is often said to be a quest for essentials. It involves an engagement from the part of the artist, and by the time the output is completed in the form of a work of art, the artist is thought to have completed an exploration that will provide new insights into the gist’ of the subject matter. This subjective process can be mysterious in itself, resulting in even more mystifying creative outcomes. Yet, it is now known that the basis for these subjective outputs are complex neurological mechanisms. As we will see, neuroscience has been helpful in clarifying some of the parallelisms behind both vision and art. There have been vast improvements in our understanding of the visual system, with significant implications for our understanding of art and its functions. However, there remains gaps in our understanding. Of all processes, object constancy has been identified as a fundamental aspect in both art and the workings of the visual system. A brief outline of the evolution of the visual system outlined below, backed up with research, followed by an analysis of its implications in art.
Research is not uncovering all of the mysteries of the visual brain at the same rate. Some phenomena that have long been investigated continue to withhold their secrets. For example stereoscopic vision (images received from the right and left eye are merged by the brain into a seamless image). It remains one of the unconscious visual operations that continues to baffle researchers. What it does show well is the level of involvement and complex processing from many parts of the brain. The human visual system has undergone many transformations to perceive the world as it currently does. It evolved from a simple system consisting of light and dark sensors, to establishing pathways between eyes and specific brain areas to process the diverse functions of vision. Initially images were replicated from reality in a similar manner than a photographic plate. Evolution, through its usual adaptive and economical ways, provided the first animals, who were nocturnal, with black and white vision. Colour perception only evolved later, when early primates populated trees, due to their need to identify ripe fruit against green background. At this stage, it became crucial for survival to identify food in under any condition, e.g., while moving, in different light, from any vantage angle, etc. This was a turning point in evolution, with the emergence of object constancy, and its later implications for the arts.
First, let us take a look at the various modalities that exist in nature. Animals are able to see in red, green, blue, infrared light or ultraviolet. During the stage of mammalian evolution, most mammals developed dichromatic vision – seeing in shades of yellow and blue. Nowadays, modern humans may be under the impression that they perceive all the colours of the spectrum, yet our visual system is limited to detecting the wavelengths for green, blue, and red light only. The brain receives these signals and combines them to create millions of shades. Therefore, colour, in itself, is not detected, only light waves. Colour, like many other aspects of visual perception, is constructed by the brain. The brain deciphers the light contrasts that it receives from the environment to work out shading, texture, depth, size and perspective, as well as movement of objects. It does so by analysing object characteristics in relation to each other. The brain actively engages in this dynamic, ongoing organisational task, by grouping some elements in the visual field according to categories while differentiating others from their background.
At present, the visual system is understood to be a modular system. It counts with at least three processing mechanisms: One for colour, another for shape, and a third for location, movement, and spatial organization. The perception of solid objects is now known to be a combined effort from all elements of the visual system combined, as some extract the information from the environment, others trigger the firing of specialised neurons, and others progressively add biologically relevant detail in stages. The brain then contrasts each aspect of the object with previous knowledge from past experience in milliseconds. The result consists of an impression, rather than an actual photographic image of the object. The brain carries out this vast amount of processing in split seconds, moment by moment. It does so automatically, without conscious awareness. It is a vast amount of processing that takes place for the function of vision alone below the threshold of our awareness.
It may have become apparent by now that the visual system is far from passive. The above illustrates the extent to which the brain does most of the task of seeing. Not only is it active, it is creative. Millions of years have elapsed since the human visual system was comparable to a camera. Seeing is an active process in which the eyes only carry out a tiny proportion of the task, while the brain builds a complete picture, adding previously observed details for objects to appear in our minds with the same solid form with which they stand in the world. Object constancy is one of the processes that has become better understood in recent years. This perceptual function is a crucial characteristic of vision. It allows us to see objects as having consistent features, e.g., size, shape, or shade of light. It grants us the ability to recognise objects in different conditions, no matter the amount of variation in distance, angle of perspective, distance, or lighting.
Inner Cosmos (of Vision)
Acrylic on canvas
Diptych W51(x2)x H51x D3 cm
As mentioned above, this evolutionary ability that initially derives from the need to identify edible foods in the wild then extended to a wider ability to recognise an object for its consistent features. Indeed, objects are perceived in an infinite number of variations. Some views are simple, while others can make the identification of the object challenging. Recent experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have tested what brain processes are involved in identifying standard and unusual views of objects. Interestingly, standard views were found to take longer for the brain to identify, and are based more on the category of the object than on recognition factors. They appeared to engage a default network linking advanced prefrontal processes, responsible for cognitive control and object constancy, and parietal lobes, in the midbrain, responsible for memory tasks and mental rotation. In regards to the processing of unusual views, processes of recognition and categorization were found. Verification processes also became involved through comparisons with templates held in memory of varying views of the object in space, in order to recognise the most 'constant' version. This process is called spatial matching. For identifying of both standard and unusual views of objects, mental rotation was used by the brain. Object constancy is therefore achieved as a complex integrative process linking prefrontal and posterior areas of the brain.
It is worth mentioning another phenomenon that reflects the complexity of the mechanisms involved in human vision. That is the need for a sensitive period. At birth, human vision is blurred. It takes between three and eight months of exposure to the environment for a child's binocular vision to focus, as a result of millions of adjustments and computations within the eyes and the brain. Vision is, therefore, learned within a time frame, a 'window of opportunity’ for learning the skill of seeing. Exposure to diverse types of light waves and stimuli provide an environment for the visual system to exercise and learn a wide range of functions. There also is a sensitive period for other complex abilities, such as language acquisition, which ranges between 3 and 5 years of age. Another example is the learning of a second language with perfect pronunciation (the sensitive period is up to the age of 12). For all of these complex functions involving the involvement of various parts of the brain, there is a learning period for the coordination of all relevant functions. In this time frame, skills are refined, following certain rules. In light of the number of skills involved in object constancy, it makes sense that this complex task is learned over an extended period of time. The existence of a sensitive period for visual functions also demonstrates that the workings of the human visual system do not mimic those of a simple camera. More than a simple replication occurs, relying on the engagement of several parts of the brain.
The visual brain does not replicate images. Nor does art, a parallelism worth exploring. The visual system searches for the most permanent features of an object. Similarly, art searches for the constants in what it expresses. It therefore follows that the work of artists (and therefore the purpose of art) is to transcend reality for expressive purposes. In this process, instead of focusing on superficial features, art tends to search for and highlight the more permanent features of objects. The profound quality to a work of art is attributed to this search. This process consists of accessing knowledge about the essential features of the object and discarding irrelevant characteristics, hence enabling its categorisation by the viewer. When looking at one of many paintings by Murillo depicting children in rags during the 17th century in Spain, he was not conveying an individual experience but the widespread poverty of those times. This quest for essentials was motivated by his need to express and transmit his compassion towards all children. Similarly, when Van Gogh painted his fields of sunflowers or the starry night in Southern France, he was not illustrating a single plant or event. Instead, he was expressing the underlying life force present that flows through all of in nature. Hence, an artist’s quest for essentials transcends their personal, subjective perceptions, generating universal truths and translating these into a visual form.
The aim of art, far from replicating images from reality, intends to transcend reality by deploying a wide range of techniques. This is obvious in abstract art, which departs from any likeness to the three-dimensional material world. Rather than illustrating an object, art often involves modifications of the object in question by amplifying or minimising the features of an object. Its features may be distorted to fulfil the motivation of the artist. This process may or may not take place consciously on the part of the artist.
This article is limited in its scope and has focused on object constancy as one of the key factors in the evolution of both the visual system and art. Since seeing is mostly a function of the brain. This notion is gaining increasing clarity with the emergence of technological advances. If art was understood as an activity that integrates both hemispheres, it is now described as one that extends the brain; a complex exercise activates a large number of brain areas that communicate between each other during the creative process.
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