The Visual Experience

A few days ago, I was having dinner with my family. My brother was staring pensively into his plate of pasta, and, after some time, said inquisitively: “I wish salt could be red so I could know whether or not I’ve added enough of it.” Imagine how convenient that would be, always having visual evidence on how salty your food is. That is, unless your food is red, like a tomato. Red salt would require no thinking, no guessing, and no forgetting whether or not you remembered to season your dish. You would know just by looking. 

Of course, wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could just see everything and not have to strain our brain with the arduous process of thinking or remembering? Imagine being able to tell how much damage that extra cheesy bacon hamburger would do to your body, or how spicy that hot sauce would be before you add an entire spoonful of it to your burrito and literally burn your mouth off? Or, taking it beyond the concept of food, imagine being able to figure out how smart someone is in the same way we can figure out the color of his or her shirt, or how nice someone is just by seeing one’s face. What would the world become?

Evolutionarily, our brains are hardwired to be very responsive to visual information. In fact, about 30% of our brain is either directly or indirectly involved with processing visual information, and about 60% of the electrical impulses entering the brain have to do with our vision. So many studies have been done to show how humans can remember visual information much better than spoken words, how color and movement have the ability to capture our very short attention spans more effectively than anything else, or how visual information is very good at evoking human emotion, one of the biggest driving factors in our decision-making. And this makes sense, doesn’t it? Our memories are stored as images. We cry much more often when we watch a film than when we read a book. It takes us much faster to recognize a face than remember what the owner of that face had told you. Our heavy reliance on the visual world makes us recipients rather than thinkers, which I believe is one of the main reasons why knowledge and personal character traits aren’t valued in our society as much as they should be.

Someone had once asked me: if you had to pick one, would I rather have a Harvard education or a Harvard diploma? In other words, I was being asked to pick between receiving arguably the best education in the world or a piece of paper; knowledge or just a signature to say that I have it. Society seems to care only about those things that can be displayed on a resume, hung up upon a wall, or photographed to be shared on social media. Everything we do is in some way an effort to become more visually appealing for the rest of the world. Education is all about learning new ways to prove our intelligence. The beauty and clothing industries exploit our visual dependence and force us to purchase different ways in which we can prove our worth. Our entire existence is built from the information taken in by the two eyeballs in our skulls.

And how do we know if it is even real? Whatever is out there is just represented in a series impulses carried through neurotransmitters. But the content of our minds, only we can know whether it is real or not. I am mirroring Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” as I find truth in that statement very often. If I had been able to think all this over in a couple of minutes, I would have told my brother to just taste his pasta, because only he can decide for himself whether or not the pasta is salty enough. If he comes to the conclusion that his pasta needs more flavor, rather than the color of the salt telling his so, who is to say that he is wrong?

Originally published on The Literati Mafia


17 thoughts on “The Visual Experience

  1. Very interesting points – the visual world is completely enthralling! They do say that a big step for a child is recognising its own reflection for what it is, makes me wonder what the child saw before then? Just a collection of blurry and sharp colours, I suppose I should be proud that I have come so far! You know the artist David Hockney was asked what he thought of TV? He said its a box – I like that, I remember reading someone said that TV is so addictive because its bright, it emits light, and people are drawn to bright things, like being hypnotised, digressing a bit, but it also ties in with your statement “heavy reliance on the visual world makes us recipients rather than thinkers” Watching TV is very much a passive recipient thing!

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    1. Thank you! Yes, the visual world is so interesting. I read somewhere that children see in the exact same way that adults do. But because they do not understand the world, they do not know what exactly to focus on/ what is important vs what is just a minor detail. We learn that as we get older, but what we see never changes. That’s interesting, about the TV. It makes sense why it’s so addictive. It’s really nothing more than a box, but the brain is so wired to respond to color and movement, that we can’t help but get addicted.

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      1. Thats interesting, I didn’t know that, I certainly remember being sat in the sand pit as a small child, my peripheral vision extended to about 2 feet length!
        A camera will focus on objects of interest, blurring out the rest, which seems like a mirror of what the eye is doing, but of course the eye is far superior, not to mention what visual artists can do to re-present reality. They tell me an eagles eye is far far better than the humans, and yet it seems to me the humans is still superior, because of what our brain is actually doing –
        Scrolling down I see someone talking about reading books, which reminds me of something I was thinking about earlier today, maybe because of something else on this page or elsewhere, (I’m a bit muddled as its late) Anyhow, it was about how books compare to films, and how when you read the book, you’re informed what a character looks like, then when you see the film version, its so much more “all there” Then if you were to watch the film first, then read the book, you already know what the characters look like, rather than just a few scant details – I do find that so very odd – I could read a book about a guy with brown eyes and bushy eyebrows, to me, thats just a disembodied pair of eyes and brows, perhaps I’ll describe some other vision to pull that together, but it’ll be basic, so basic as to be practically non existent. But if I see the film, and its Al Pacino – then there he is, with all the other details!! weird!! 🙂

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      2. This reminds me of my very first memories. One of them was of me playing in the snow and accidentally tripping over something hidden under the snow, and the other was of me having nightmares of worms crawling up the walls. I was probably 2 or 3 years old at the time, but these memories appear so clearly in my head, but there are very few supporting details to go with it; meaning that I clearly remember what the snow looked like that day but I don’t remember who was with me. I remember my nightmare perfectly but I have no idea what my bedroom looked like. What you said about children having limited peripheral vision is probably right, they only look at what is directly in front of them. As for books, even though the physical traits of the character may be limited, I always make some traits up until I have a full visual of the character in my head. That’s actually one of the things I like the most about reading: letting my imagination wander. And this is also why I always try to read the book before I watch the supporting film.

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  2. Your posts just keep getting more and more thought provoking, Kat. I found this line especially so, “Our heavy reliance on the visual world makes us recipients rather than thinkers, which I believe is one of the main reasons why knowledge and personal character traits aren’t valued in our society as much as they should be. ”

    That’s entirely plausible I think. In fact, I’d say the only question is how much of a complete explanation that is for the relative lack of value we place on knowledge and character traits. I imagine there are other reasons besides that one, but that strikes me as likely a leading reason.

    By the way, I think our emphasis on the visual might help to explain our cult of youth. It seems to me that we devalue age and inflate the value of youth — mainly because of the beauty of youth.

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    1. Thank you, Paul. I like that line a lot too.

      I think I may be too young to make conclusions about this, but I think that, although the youth are admired, the older are respected. Even though the visual world is key in evoking emotions, those are just shallow, on the surface, emotions. Although we are primarily made up of those, that can’t be all that we are. Respect comes from a much deeper understanding of a person, something the visual world cannot give you. That’s what I think.

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  3. This is very thought provoking – and your posts keep getting more interesting every time! I love it. When I read books I never recognise them again and again in perfect detail, I just have a brief vision in my head. Like, her hair is very wiry and thin and she has a sharp face, or he’s got long curly hair with dirt from top to bottom. But with a film, you have an actor/actress – and you know every last bit to perfection of that appearance and you see the glistening blue eyes and the short chesnut hair. So when I read this statement I was straight to the comment section!
    Have a wonderful week. Xx

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    1. Thank you so much! So glad that you like this post.
      I think I know what you mean about characters in books. I always try my best to constructed his/her image in my head. But now matter how much detail I add, the image will still be very blurry and confusing in my mind, which is why I probably quickly forget it when I finish reading the book. But movies make that image for you, making it harder for you to forget. It’s actually a human trait to remember faces very well, so maybe that’s why.
      Hope you have a great week too. 😊

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      1. Maybe I’m kind of strange, but when I read books, I seldom form a strong impression of what the characters look like. With me, though, I form a very strong impression of their personalities and characters.

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      2. That’s not strange. I actually do that too. But I also like creating images of the character in my head. That probably what I like most about reading: letting my imagination wander and create entire worlds in my head based on what I am reading. But those images never stay with me for long, unfortunately. They’re kind of like dreams. I’ll eventually forget the individual personalities of the characters as well, but the main message of the book stays with me for a long time. I was recently thinking about a book I read exactly one year ago, called The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. I don’t really remember the characters or the little details, but the message I got from the book had really struck a cord in my heart, and I’ll probably never forget it.


      3. I read a book at the start of the year called ‘Holding Up ate Universe’. It was about a boy with propagnosia and an over-weight girl.
        What amazing me is the fact that he could search so hard to find the face. It’s quite an emotional book altogether, and I loved it!
        You are very welcome, thank you for the nice conversation! 😊
        All the best, and thank you.

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  4. Very interesting… in a world where you could see a person’s attributes as clearly as you see their face. Would we be less racist, or would we just have ten thousand new kinds of pre-judgment? People would be like, “Just because it SAYS I’m 8/10 thrifty, doesn’t mean I’m not paying for dinner, come on. Don’t judge people by their visible character traits.”

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    1. It’s hard to imagine a world where all of that would be known. It reminds me of a movie called Gattica, which is a futuristic sci-fi about genetic engineering, where everyone lives with the knowledge about the year they will die and all the genetic diseases they will have. This information is used by employers, potential partners etc. and those that are less healthy are considered lower down in society. So if something like that were to exist now, I think we’ll just find new ways to judge and label people – maybe not by the color of their skin, but we’ll definitely find something.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yeah, I’ve seen that one!
        Haha, yeah… we’d find something (at least, lots of us would).
        It’s really a wonderful thing that we can’t read each other’s minds, isn’t it? Language is a medium but it’s also just the right amount of barrier, I think.

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