Cognitive Illusions Twisting Truth

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If our perceptual system corrupts incoming sensory signals, surely, you might hope, the virtuous brain will tell us the truth. If that were true, then perhaps the world would be a less contentious place. At least arguments based on what people think they see would be lessened and rational thought would prevail. Take the case of two spectators watching the same hockey game, one a Red Wing fanatic and the other a radical Maple Leaf devotee. Both have nearly identical sensory experiences, yet, when the star player for the Wings fires the puck at the net and the Maple Leaf goalie valiantly hurls his body on the puck, each partisan comes to an opposite conclusion: the Red Wings fan calls it a goal; the Maple Leaf fan calls it a save. Our chauvinistic zeal is not confined to the hockey rink but permeates every corner of life's existence, not the least ofwhich is the world of art where opinions, prejudices, and twisted truths sometimes make ice controversies look cool.

Species-Specific Empathic Perspicuity

What the eye distorts, the brain corrupts. This neglected characteristic of the perceptual-cognitive sequence is important in the psychology of art and the appreciation of conscious AWAREness. Perception and cognition in humans is shared with other members ofthe species in species-specific empathic perspicuity (SSEP), which is simply the tendency for one member to tune in to the thoughts of another by reason of having similar perceptual-cognitive experiences. All people are bound by an invisible thread that connects us in a web of humanity. Your percepts are universal; your reactions to art are the same as your neighbor's; your thoughts are the same as mine. Naturally, as world experience colors perception, individual differences in interpreting basic sensory signals emerge—-just as hockey fans interpret events differently, although they share basic perceptual-cognitive experiences. Even though hockey fans and art critics may arrive at different conclusions, the vehicle through which conclusions are derived is the same. All members view art with very similar visual-cerebral apparatus and, because of SSEP, have no need to express consensual experiences such as "I see a face," "I see blue and green colors," or "I see a cross." Our empathic perspicuity tells us those things. To illustrate the principle consider the following example.

When touring the Vatican with a friend, you both gaze upon Raphael's The School of Athens (see figure 6.1) in the Stanza della Segnatura adjacent to the Sistine Chapel. Immediately, you see an illusion of depth created by linear perspective and, without uttering a word, empathetically apprehend that your friend's perception is similar to yours. People intuitively sense that some objects in this great mural appear to be closer to us than other objects, distinguish figures from the background, see colors, lines, and faces, and gain an overall perspective of the content of the scene. These common perceptual phenomena are apprehended by all humans. They are relatively independent of learning, memory, or personal background.

On the other hand, understanding the meaning of a piece such as The School of Athens engages our knowledge base, which is accumulated through world experience, learning, and thinking about relationships. Knowing that Raphael depicted his well-known contemporaries as Athenian characters—the central figure of Plato idealistically pointing skyward is likely a romanticized portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (Raphael's hero); the brooding figure draped over a cube of marble in the left foreground, Michelangelo (his rival); and even a tiny self-portrait of Raphael himself peeks out from under the arch at the far right. Furthermore, the "larger meaning" of the mural is made apparent as we engage knowledge about topics ranging from

6.1 Raphael, The School of Athens (1510—1511). Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome.

the Greek philosophers of the fourth century B.C. to Vatican politics in the sixteenth century and beyond.

The natural aspects of perception are "hard-wired" into our peripheral and central nervous system and are, alas, species-specific. It is difficult for a human to be empathetically perspicacious with his favorite horse (although some cowboys would vigorously argue against such an observation), and, presumably, it is difficult for a horse to be empathetically perspicacious with his owner (a notion that is equally contested by some cowboys). The neighborhood of perceptual empathy is somewhat limited, and although none of us have ever been a member of another species (at least that we can validate empirically), it may be that other creatures are more limited in their capacity for empathetic perspicuity. Worms, birds, and fish seem to be mostly oblivious to what their kinfolk are consciously experiencing, outside of detecting some social actions necessary for survival. One reason humans are so infused with collective empathy is because we have more complex means by which to ensnare others in a common web of intellectual pathos.

Linguistic Prison

After the sensory system has detected many of the important features in The School of Athens, or any other painting, and the brain has sorted out the visual perceptual primitives, higher-order cognitive processing—language, meaning, and associative "I kill with words . . . reasoning—takes over. We "see" relationships, interactions, and meanings in the painting that are related to historical and philosophic events stored in our long-term memory. Language contributes significantly to the understanding of art by adding richness to the basic, natural decomposition of a visual scene. Furthermore, it is through language that we communicate to others what we "see" in a painting. It is a forceful, convenient, and conceptual means of expression. But is it truthful, or does it too convey a lie?

Alas, language also contributes to the mutual intellectual conspiracy that is elemental to social discourse. Through a common language, humans establish a kind of linguistic species-specific empathie perspicuity in which verbal symbols represent commonly agreed-upon meaning. The agreed-upon vocabulary further coalesces human bonds that, in addition to a common neurology, share a similar means for abstract representation of an object, such as a piece of art. When an art professor decrees that Mona Lisa is "magnifique!," we understand exactly what he means as easily as if he had asked for a banana. It is difficult for an adult Homo sapiens to appreciate art outside he with a dagger." of his lexical microcosm. Think about it. From cave paintings to abstract expressionism, the way —Verdi, Rigoletto humans react to paintings is to transcribe sensory impression into words.

By forming semantic links with fellow humans, we are able to express common thoughts about all things conceptual, including art. In many subcommunities, specialized words and meanings are invented for the joint purpose of effective communication within the group and establishing an argot to exclude outsiders. Jazz musicians, computer geeks, art critics, wine connoisseurs, football players, and teenagers are notorious for concocting esoteric expressions. While communication is greatly facilitated by the invention of a system that contains common semantic symbols, the deeper effect is that language restricts the range by which percepts might be represented. Furthermore, much of the richness of sensory stimuli is seriously stultified by being expressed linguistically. Many things are just too delicious for words, yet we are compelled to give a word to everything, from a beautiful sunset to fantastic lovemaking.

Human conceptualization is restrained by a limited lexicon, while the experience of beholding an art object may transcend idiomatic semantic expression. Yet our semantic firewall is what civilized man uses primarily to perceive and think about sensory events, including art. The human spirit cries out for nonlinguistic means of expression that tell of one's inner feelings. Very young (prelinguistic) babies do this well, and many teenagers are also "out of control" in their desire to express inner feelings of ecstasy. One may speculate that music was invented (or maintained) when words failed to express feelings adequately. The same might be said for mathematics, gestures, actions, and other forms of semiotic communication that are used to express thoughts—thoughts that might otherwise be mute. And, one might ask, which is more functional—to kill with words or with a dagger? The very intellectual tool that released the mind from a stimulus-reaction mentality, that made possible worldwide migratory campaigns, that provided conceptual material for abstract thoughts, that launched the technical revolution and even brought to the world art and conscious AWAREness, also imprisoned the mind in a self-restraining lexical network. Most people are oblivious to the semantic yoke they wear.

Consciously AWARE people view objects and actions linguistically. That impressive development in the history of the species—"left-hemisphere types" call it the most important intellectual change—made it possible to establish complex societies, make laws, and write good (and bad) poetry, among other civilized activities. When we apply words to art and science, we continue to perpetrate a synthetic narrative that the world is like a yellow banana. People use language to express art, then "nudge, nudge, wink, wink . . . you know what I mean" and blithely move forward to create the next sequence of sensory and semantic constructions. It is perfectly acceptable (and may, in fact, be the only way we can function), because we are communicating with a kind of Ozian linguistic species-specific empathic perspicuity that expresses whatever thoughts we have that words can tell. I believe that art is more than words can express.

Essentially, we "see" with words—a curious way for perception to work which, insofar as we can tell, may be unique to humans. By placing our view of art (and science) inside a semantic box, we lose the ability to see things uncluttered by lexical content. Semantic contamination contributes to the cognitive incongruity between truth and the perception of reality in a world that is based on consensual val

Art doesn't transform. It just plain forms.

—Roy Lichtenstein idation. One reason art is important is that it penetrates the lexical prison that restrains the mind of man. Art stimulates the brain directly. Direct perception also appears in other forms besides art, such as geometry, architecture, gestures, music, and actions (such as direct physical contact and the dagger's deeds).

Now let us return to The School of Athens and reexamine it in light of the above ideas. When viewing art, people experience:

• A common neurological sequence of events in which angles, colors, faces are initially processed by a complex system of cortical neurons. From retinal stimulation which projects to the primary visual cortex, a torrent of interactive neuroglial streams are unleashed in which specialized processing takes place.

• An overall, Gestalt view of the scene in which all components are integrated within the visual plane. In The School of Athens, the visual display is enclosed in a semicircle grounded by a horizontal frame. Within that frame, further organizational patterns are perceived.

• A figure-ground categorization in which some features stand out from others. The central figures, Plato and Aristotle, initially command our attention, but other figures, such as the artist in the near foreground, also are cut out from the background.

• An illusion of dimensionality. Figures appear as distant or near, a vanishing point is sensed, objects occlude other objects, and far distant scenes are perceived through atmospheric perspective.

• A verbal description of the painting, either spoken or internal. Succinctly stated, the left-hemisphere language-processing part of the brain and frontal associative areas (among other areas) are activated. The mural is interpreted semantically. We "understand" relationships, deduce meanings, draw conclusions about the artistic, social, religious significance of the painting—all done with words which add intellectual complexity. Words enhance and distort what the eye sees.

• A desire to express our visual-semantic impression. People gush, "How beautiful, how realistic, how intriguing, how profound," and so on, to voice their visual impression of the scene. Some out of control right-hemisphere types, small children, and uncivilized people may jump up and down.

We now turn our attention to "real" visual illusions commonly used in the perception laboratory.

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