The Eyes May Look, But It’s Your Brain That Sees

When I step outside my door, I step into a world of mostly green: trees and grass. In our subdivision, there are trees and grass in everyone’s front yards; there is an undeveloped natural area right across from my house; and to the rear, a 98-acre park, consisting mostly of wooded areas with a three-mile bike trail winding through the trees.

There’s so much green that two of my granddaughters, who have spent most of their lives to this point (6 and 9 years) in New Mexico, always comment about “so much green” when they come to visit Nina and GrandBob.

I see green, but is it really green?

According to the National Institute of Health, the eyes may look, but it’s the brain that sees.

 

How We See

There are many different parts of the eye that help to create vision.

  • Light passes through the cornea, the clear, dome-shaped surface that covers the front of the eye.
  • The cornea bends – or refracts – this incoming light.
  • The iris, the colored part of the eye, regulates the size of the pupil, the opening that controls the amount of light that enters the eye.
  • Behind the pupil is the lens, a clear part of the eye that further focuses light, or an image, onto the retina.
  • The retina is a thin, delicate, photosensitive tissue.
  • This tissue contains the special “photoreceptor” cells that convert light into electrical signals.
  • These electrical signals are processed further, and then travel from the retina of the eye to the brain through the optic nerve, a bundle of about one million nerve fibers.

But even with all that, we “see” with our brains; our eyes “simply” collect visual information and begin this complex process.

According to ScienceNordic, our brain quickly adapts to new surroundings and only sees the most important information captured though our eyes.

Certain objects attract our attention in a particular way. It could be something that is especially ugly or something that we perceive as being rather pretty.

So, what is it that catches and keeps our eye fixed to something “nice”? How does the brain choose what to observe and ignore?

Two Types of Vision

Roughly speaking, we have two systems of vision. One system prevents us from bumping into things and enables us to move around. It’s called “orientation attention,” and it operates quickly, saving energy, as the brain is not required to develop a full understanding of your surroundings.

The other system is called “discover attention.” This operates more slowly, as the brain collects information from our memory to obtain a full understanding of the scene.

An example of the two systems in operation can be seen when you walk down the street. The orientation system allows you to easily move in and out of the path of other people, and stops you from falling over or walking into a lamppost. But when your eye catches sight of something interesting in a shop window, you switch over to the discover system to get the full picture.

The object you’re looking at might seem familiar, but has a different shape or color. How long you spend looking at the object, depends on how much sense it makes to you and the number of other things you’re thinking about at that time.

How to Fix Your Attention

We use these two systems alternatively without even realizing it. Since the orientation system requires less energy, we quickly switch back to it when we have enough information.

In reality, we know that objects with certain characteristics are better at catching our attention, while others are better at holding our attention.

Reflecting on Leonardo da Vinci’s comment that “the average human looks without seeing,” author Michael Gelb invites people to improve our senses – and our minds and experiences along the way – by “seeing” like da Vinci. Saoer vedere (knowing how to see) was one of da Vinci’s mottoes, and the cornerstone of his artistic and scientific work. Use this self-assessment of “vision” to start “seeing” like da Vinci:

  • I am sensitive to color harmonies and clashes
  • I look out into the far horizon and up to the sky at least once a day
  • I am good at describing a scene in detail
  • I like doodling and drawing
  • Friends would describe me as alert
  • I am sensitive to subtle changes in lighting
  • I can picture things clearly in my mind’s eye

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb

Spot Something New Every Day

We spend most of our time in familiar places that have lost their inherent novelty. We take these surroundings for granted, and we stop paying close attention. A recurring commute becomes profoundly numbing. Psychologists who study perception call this phenomenon inattentional blindness.

You can fight inattentional blindness by resolving to notice something different every day on your regular walks or commutes.

The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker

As for my daily walks, this week I’ve been looking at all that green, specifically the trees in my neighborhood. I’m mentally cataloging all the different species, and then noticing how they fit into their immediate environment, and to what purpose.

In other words, I’m walking with “discover attention.”

What about you? Which ‘”attention” will you use most today?

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

 

How to Take a Walk With All Your Senses

Welcome to the age of white noise.

We live our lives in a constant tether to phones, to apps, and to social media – mostly acquiescing to FOMO.

In this age of distraction, the ability to experience and be present is often lost, as is our capacity to think and to see and to listen.

Rob Walker, The Art of Noticing

In an effort to battle this, I’m inviting you to join me in taking a walk – with all your senses.

In short, I want you to pay attention.

At a basic level, paying attention is simply making a selection among all the stimuli bombarding you at any moment.

Even if we ignore most of what is going on around us, we can only take in so much of the world at a time. Our sensory system has a limited capacity, both in range and in speed of processing.

The sensory system I’m referring to are your five classical senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Limited capacity aside, many times we unfortunately ignore the parts that are available to us. Leonardo da Vinci reflected sadly that the average human:

“looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”

A Brief Primer on How Our Senses Work

Sound The outer ear catches and channels sound waves to the middle ear, which contains three tiny bones. These bones vibrate, transmitting the sound the inner ear, where thousands of hair cells are stimulated by the movement of the fluid within the inner ear. An electrical impulse is transmitted along the hearing nerve to the brain creating the sensation of hearing.

Sight The experience of sight begins when photons from the world hit the lens of our eye, and get focused onto over 130 million receptor cells on the retina. These receptor cells convert incoming light into electrical signals to be sent to the brain, making sight possible.

Smell Every day we are confronted with a smorgasbord of smells. Our five million olfactory cells can sniff out one molecule of odor-causing substance in one part per trillion of air. We take about 23,000 breaths per day processing about 440 cubic feet of scent-laden air.

Touch Our bodies have more than 500,000 touch detectors and 200,000 temperature sensors. Each of these sensors gathers sensory information and relay it through specific nerve bundles back to the central nervous system for processing and possible reaction

Taste The complex process of tasting begins when tiny molecules released by the substances around us stimulate special cells in the nose, mouth, or throat. These special sensory cells transmit messages through nerves to the brain, where specific tastes are identified.

Enough of the science lab! God designed our bodies to sense, interpret, and react to the millions of stimuli that occur around us every day.

What do you miss, every day, right in front of you, while walking around the block?

I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before me that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see. That attention invited attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.

Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

 

photo credit: João Loureio