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Cognitive psychology 4/5

In the laboratory this fine distinction can only split hairs. I should supply a larger example that will bear the division better. If you accept the standards that cognitive psychology uses to judge the self-reporting of perceptions, then you must accept that people who draw badly perceive the world as they draw it to be; which is absurd, because the distortions are too severe to live around.

Four objections present themselves.

1. If drawing is a manual skill, then non-artists may simply lack enough control to make the pencil do what they want. Now certainly there is room for manual skill in drawing; but it is not required. Anyone who can negotiate the angles and curves of printing the alphabet has all the control of the pencil required to produce an accurate sketch.

2. If non-artists really see the world as they draw it, they may still be able to function because seeing and drawing differ in the same way as recognition and recollection. The problem is that non-artists often do worse attempting to draw from life than from memory. Partly this because drawing from memory spares them the awkward necessity of refocusing between paper and subject, which is a distinct skill. If you tell someone to draw a leaf from memory the result is usually recognizable; if you give someone a leaf to draw you may get a tracing, or something that looks like the coastline of an imaginary island.

The discrepancy here is in the way data is stored. Following the computational metaphor, recall is presumably something like a value stored as a string, and recognition something like a value stored as a hash.

The difference is this. When you log into a (well-designed) site, the site has no record of your password as such. Instead, the site transforms your password using a mathematical operation which is easy to apply but difficult to reverse, and compares the result, or hash, with a hash that it has on record. The site recognizes your password without recalling it. (This is important because it ensures that if someone were to crack the database they could obtain only the useless hashes, not the passwords themselves.)

To distinguish recall and recollection we could thus suppose that the mind contains two ideas of the leaf: one an ideal, schematic, low-density Leaf-concept that can easily be handled in working memory when thinking about leaves—good enough to figure out how much pressure to use in raking and how big a pile of leaves will fit in one bag—and a separate Leaf-hash, which the brain can readily compare particular objects to in order to recognize them as leaves. If you attempt to draw a leaf, then you can obviously only draw a Leaf-concept, as this is all the information that you brain actually has about leaves; but through some sort of hashing you can still recognize leaves that do not match that account.

(I am doing readers the favor of constructing a stranger account of recognition than the one commonly advanced, which would recognize a leaf by the successive activation of increasingly specific subsystems of identification—from green to flat to foliform to organic to leaf. To suppose that seeing a particular object requires a specific order and combination of activations is so far from the reality of perception that it exceeds my capacity for polite treatment; so I have constructed a stronger account to refute.)

The problem is that this makes a mystery of how anyone ever draws a leaf at all. The artist certainly does not add parameters to the Leaf-value. Indeed the artist ceases to have any Leaf-value at all. Artists draw not things, but configurations of color and shadow.

But if this distinct Leaf-value—the leaf as recalled—is useless either to recognize or depict a leaf—what good is it? One could suppose that the Leaf-value in some sense guides the process of recognition—affords the possibility—that something might be a leaf and directs the brain to check—but really, what does the bright-green oak-maple hybrid I expect my English-speaking readers might draw have to do with leaves—leaves green, red, yellow, brown, anthocyaninic blue and black, leaves from grass blades to tropical aroid elephant ears? Either we must suppose that the brain harbors a Leaf-value for no other purpose than to thwart artists—not even in dreams do trees have such unleaflike leaves—or that this distinction of recognition and recall is not applicable, and that this parody of a leaf is cover for the inability to consciously perceive how we conscious perceive a leaf?

3. If non-artists do not perceive the world as they draw it, the way they draw may simply distort what they see, as memory in general distorts what they experience. This is a good objection because there is an obvious comparison between how memory and drawing both exaggerate emotionally significant aspects of perception, and between how memory artfully fits experience to narrative, and how drawing unartfully fits vision to outline.

Consider outlines. Outlines exist nowhere but in non-artists' drawings. Nature defies outline; vision nowhere finds it. Nonetheless when non-artists draw, invariably they first attempt an outline—even cave painters, who were artists when they drew, loved to outline their hands on the rock. Outlines are not incompatible with art—the Egyptians made a high art of shaded outlines—but they are prior to art. Abstract outlines do not depict anything: their value is, being abstractions, they preserve the symmetries and topologies of what they anonymize—they are mathematical in character and, for simple shapes, perhaps the origin of mathematics.

The comparison with memory and narrative is obvious. We need not appeal to the world cone diagrams of physics to understand that in anything that happens, an imponderable diversity of causes conspire, and that for anything that happens, an innumerable diversity of effects result. Every event is part of the fabric of the whole world.

Narrative, like outline, is unreal but useful; patterns of events, like shapes, though potentially infinite in variety, tend to approximate simple forms with predictable properties.

But drawing cannot distort information in the same way as memory. However badly someone draws, they do not ever act as if they see the world that way. To walk or sit, to touch or pick up, proves that a non-artist does not bungle seeing the world in same way as rendering it. Even in dreams no one sees as badly as they draw. The brain does not elide vision into outline before storing it; the reduction to outline is a miscommunication within the brain.

4. If someone does not draw in a style that resembles Western art, that person is not therefore a non-artist. High cultures elevate as art what Westerners might regard as mistakes. Non-artists may not exist. Perhaps everyone distorts their perceptions artistically when they draw, most in more dramatic ways than the subtle ones traditionally valorized in the West.

Western art has its artificial conventions, but to say that photography and the kind of art that obeys the same laws of optics and projection is essentially a cultural convention requires more stomach than I have. Human eyes only work one way. The anecdote says that a pygmy brought out of the forest could not tell buffaloes on the horizon from insects. Assume the anecdote is true; what does it prove? It proves that there exists such a thing as a myopic pygmy. Or should we believe that pygmies never look up into the crowns of trees? That they cannot tell that the bird overhead is the same as the bird in the bush? To prize optic validity as artistic quality is cultural; but the validity itself is physiological.

So if for the first 3500 years or so of human history no culture or civilization held the goal of art to be to represent just what was seen, then of course we are readily distracted by other goals, and must be induced by long training to give them up for this one particular goal of realism.

But I am unwilling to credit that the artistic way is ever the easy way. The artists of the cave walls, of Egypt and Sumer, of India and Persia, were no lazier than the artists of Venice, Florence, and Amsterdam. They were not primitive; they were not innocent. Assimilating natural errors to artistic traditions they happen to resemble represents a more ridiculous pedestal for Western art than any academy ever proposed.

Too, perspective and foreshadowing are not utterly alien to the brain; I suspect that even those whose arts reject these values, do in fact dream with them; although this would be difficult to prove.