The Eye, it sees. Does it? Or is that just a vestigial bit of linguistic habit left to us by a culture that used barbers as their primary care physicians? Your eye is a marvel of Nature, a strange and wondrous creation–but it is not unique, and within its many photoreceptor cells, mosaic of muscles, and intricate biological machinery, the roots of all eyes are found. Nature doesn’t throw away ideas and start from scratch. No, it builds on the original concept, even when parts of it are outmoded or inefficient. Because evolution is not a machine of What’s Best, but one of Good Enough.
The Funny Thing About Seeing
Eyes began as individual cells with the ability to distinguish light from dark. These cells belonged to simple organisms that lived and died in Earth’s ancient oceans. And the eyes with which you are reading these words were adapted over millions of years to see clearly in an aqueous environment. Yes, there have been additional modifications made–advancements, adaptations–but the eye is, at its most basic, a giant photoreceptor and made from many smaller bits all angled at collecting information to transfer to the visual cortex. That’s the part of our brains that processes the bits of information sent to it.
This is the part of us that truly sees. But wait, that’s not the punchline; its just the beginning of the cosmic joke. You see, your eyes each send billions of bits of information per second to the visual cortex. A bit is a 1 or a 0 for our purposes. The brain then weeds out these bits and uses around 200,000 per second to create our perceived world. What we see is literally crafted by what we think, how we think, and our most deeply held beliefs. Add atop this nugget of joy that we are, by nature, a pattern-seeking and a pattern-making species and you have a real side-splitter on the cosmic level. All of our most deeply held beliefs, scientific ideas, and thoughts about the nature of humanity are literally a direct result of the stories we tell ourselves.
What’s the point of that? Well, you see…
And Along Came a Neural Net
From our earliest moments in the world, and likely before we ever make our debuts, our brains are frantically forming a lattice of light, energy, memory, skill, ability. This is the neural net, and Science is ever pushing forward, trying to understand how it works, how it’s built, and what it means for the invisible “I”–our passenger consciousness. Think about what you just read above, and add to it the understanding that during the first five years, that net is undergoing such enormous expansion and construction, that we don’t even have room to keep many memories of childhood.
Even our understanding of language and linguistic ability is tied into the net. We are, long before we speak, absorbing sounds–cadence, rhythm, melody, pattern–and shifting it around. The pathways of our net that pertain to language are overlaid atop those put down by music. And, while it may simply be a poetic wish on my part, I’d like to think that each individual’s development is, at first, the story of our species, and farther back, that of life itself.
We begin as a single cell. We divide, specialize, differentiate. We grow through fetal phases that have us as the spitting image of a seahorse, a giraffe, a dog, a whale, and many other forms of life early on in their development. We have gills and tails. Our eyes resemble the buds of cave fish. When at last we are born, we’re still only half-finished–a gift of bipedalism. The human pelvic aperture is too narrow to allow babies to develop fully, and so we are born undone, unable to quickly adapt or flee. We require nearly an entire year before we start to behave like other baby primates. We only think we’re the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement because we’re narrating the tale.
But Let’s Get Back to the Eye…
So, I said that what we see is a product of what we think. This has broad implications for a number of areas–from science to poetry to that traffic accident you watched happen right in front of you last Thursday by the Dairy Queen. The fact that the brain shapes what we effectively see is also just as actual as it is metaphorical. This is the reason why the scientific community and the religious right will likely always fail to communicate effectively. The narratives that shaped them are dramatically different, privilege different ideas, values, and realities. It would also help if they could actually find a common bandwidth–the symbols they use clash because they don’t compare.
It’s like trying to solve a simple math problem that goes something like 4 + purple = happy. When they get together, it seems that communication breaks down swiftly because they don’t use the same psychological lexicon. For all they know, there are times when they would be in perfect harmony. But their chance at that is lost in the noise of clashing symbolic systems, world views, and neural nets. So, our “Eyes” only see what our brains tell them to see.
What Was That About Hazards?
This doesn’t just impact fundamentalists or science educators. It’s all of us. Once, on a bright and chilly Sunday afternoon in Albuquerque, as I wandered into an Earth Day street fair with my favorite familiar stranger, he asked me if I’d seen something. I hadn’t, because I’d been so focused on activities happening in the distance. So, I told him he was more socially active than I was–he noticed human beings more than I did, was what I meant.
I tend to focus on things more than people in the moment, even when those things are the result of people, such as buildings, gardens, puppies, art galleries. Human beings are the background noise to what I find most interesting, with certain exceptions. This is what my neural net deems important to see, and so, if I don’t immediately mark an individual person as being important, I don’t remember seeing them. They never happened to my life. Understandably, that sounds very callous. It is. But I’m hardly the only person you know who does this. I’m just more forthright about it.
Does it make me a cold person to act according to the neural net my life experience has formed? That, until you do or say something that startles me–negatively or positively–I don’t really give you much more thought than you might give trees in a forest. In fact, I’m more inclined to know all the names of the trees in a forest than I am to remember most people’s names. But once you become important to me, you become a part of that bright net of stars I hold in my head. I turn upon you the focus usually reserved for cataloging the differences in plants and animals, or temporal distinctions between artifact manifestations.
This attention is intense, and it frightens a lot of people, because it seems sudden. I shift from being brusk, dismissive or vaguely polite in a customer service sort of way, to noticing small idiosyncrasies, patterns of behavior, tastes, and manners of speech. My conversation with you is shaped around and peppered by information I have gathered about you. This is the highest compliment I can render you–that of total fascination. But it does tend to be a bit socially impolitic. And so, I write. I keep my council more often than most would suspect, given that I talk nineteen-to-the-dozen. It’s what I do when I appreciate other human animals. I notice. I want to help. I want the pleasure of your company.
Seeing as a Means of Resistance (addendum)
I suppose all of this about eyes, perception, and neural nets has both deeply personal and broadly international ties. I am a woman who has been mistaken as a man, a trans-gendered person, or as something that confuses and frightens people for most of my life. I’m none of these things, unless you happen to be the sort of person who is afraid of a woman speaking her mind, using words you don’t understand, or expounding on concepts with which you are unfamiliar; unless you quake in horror at the thought that the way you see the world may not be the way it actually is. If that’s the case, then I am a walking, talking tuning fork and you live in a house of glass.
The way I interact with other humans–that dismissive disinterest that is even so not without a compassion for their humanity–is a form of armor. I find comfort in examining the phenomena of the world with intensity, with a deep and cutting focus. Human beings are soft and bleed easily, especially the sort who don’t like to have their world views challenged. My attentiveness is dangerous for both of us. I don’t want to love you if you’re going to turn around and shame with your lack of comprehension. I don’t want to care what you think if you’re going to ask me embarrassing questions about my sex or my gender, making assumptions on many levels. People who haven’t had this conversation over and over again with strangers for several decades don’t really understand why it frustrates me, why it leads me to be cold and distanced. That’s okay. I don’t understand why they want bigger breasts or have issues with communication. It’s a thing.
Beyond my immediate personal sphere, I draw a line from this subject to a number of current events that have to do with how truth is presented in the media. In this, what is seen and how we may interpret it are passed through a number of filters before those images and stories even reach us. Depending on where in the world you live, your filters will alter dramatically the story you see, hear, or read. Think of it–the Gaza conflict between Palestine and Israel. No, I’m not delving into that one, but question why you have selected the stance you hold on that, if you hold one at all.
The suppression of journalists in Myanmar (Burma)–after almost a decade of increasing freedom of expression, which followed two repressive post-colonial juntas, journalists and photojournalists are again being heavily censored. That country is also in the midst of Apartheid, aimed at its Muslim population. Cambodia has jumped on the media suppression band wagon. Nigeria is also increasing its repressive policies about journalists’ freedom of expression. We could go on, but the point I’m trying to make here is that when individuals offer a challenge to deeply held beliefs of a culture or the wishful thinking of military dictators, there are harsh consequences–both for the sender and the receiver of these messages. The shimmering ripples of culture-wide cognitive dissonance in the face of contradictory information are easy to watch.
In either the intimate or the international sense, challenging what we believe we see can hold an important place in our spiritual and intellectual growth. While we may encounter the issue I spoke of earlier that addresses a common symbolic system, it’s important that we remain stalwart, and continue to offer alternatives to the accepted model of what is Seen. If we do not, then the forms with which we have grown easy can be used to manipulate us. Whether we want to talk about gender norms or State-sponsored genocide, the conversation is the same. Keep your eyes open, but allow yourself time to question what your brain sees. Asking questions and verifying information is the first step to seeing more of the world, even one you look at every day.