Lemme talk to you about my eyes. Or, well, not my eyes. The process of seeing, and a rare occurrence that happens when I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Not long ago I was in Wilmington, in a car on the way to the train station. There was a lot of traffic backed up on several streets, so we turned down one that wasn’t busy and suddenly saw a tall masted ship crossing the road! Or, well, it was going down the river right in front of us, and the bridges were all up to let it past, which is why traffic was backed up.

Also, I didn’t see a tall masted ship. The person I was with saw the tall masted ship, and pointed it out. I saw a jumble of colors and shapes going across in front of me. For several seconds that’s all I saw. Ok, that’s not quite right either. I saw everything else just fine, resolved into visual sense, but there in the middle was a bunch of shapes and colors where I was told there was a ship. After a brief but confusing few seconds, the ship suddenly went “pop!” and there it was! A tall masted ship crossing the street! Wow!

This is a thing that happens to me once in a while. If I don’t know what something is supposed to be, I might not be able to resolve the shapes and colors into anything that makes visual sense. At least, not at first. I have occasionally read of autistic people who are living permanently in a space of shapes and colors that never resolve into images, and I consider myself fortunate that it’s something that only happens to me once in a while, for short periods of time. The most consistent times it happens is in the lobbies of movie theaters, if they have one of those 3-D cardboard cutouts promoting a movie. Once I looked at one while leaving the theater and, once again, saw nothing but shapes and colors. I wanted to figure out what it was so I stayed and studied it for a minute or two. I had to carefully pick out individual pieces – here was a chain, there was a face, down here is a tire, now I see a foot, and eventually I managed to put it all together (it was a guy on a motorcycle wielding a chain).

I don’t know much about neurology, but I do occasionally get curious about how our brains do vision. Apparently it’s actually a fairly complicated process involving different parts of our brains doing different things to put pictures together, and one of the most fundamental parts is the part of our brain that handles shapes and colors and such. I’d actually love to be able to talk about this in terms of neurology but unless I can find a neurologist to interview, I’m going to have to make do with reading books by Oliver Sacks and such, and leave the educated brain stuff to the people who actually know what they’re talking about.

However, one thing I definitely have gathered from reading books like Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is that the lenses in my eyes may project a picture onto my retina, but it’s my brain that turns that image into something I can make sense of, and this process is actually quite complicated with all sorts of parts of the brain doing different things.

(warning: ramble ahead) When I think about this I tend to get a little philosophical about order and categories and labels and the way we turn the world around us into something we can make sense of. Sometimes I see discussions about this or that animal that is defying our categories, refusing to be neatly placed within the lines we’ve drawn around all living things, and people often react with astonishment, at how weird that animal must be. Until eventually (and this does frequently happen, though not always) someone comes along and reminds us all that nature does not care about our categories. Our categories are ours – we made them up in an attempt to create order; to make sense of the world around us. However, the world is not bound by those categories and sometimes they will fall short.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but it’s something I like to remind myself of. That nothing in the world is as neatly placed as we are pretending it is. And this is coming from someone who really likes labels. I just think it’s really important to remember the limitations of labels. We can draw a line around something in an attempt to understand it, but ultimately that line will fall short. However, as with our brain making sense of what our eyes tell us, those categories are actually really important. I would not be able to functionally see if I was not able to take those shapes and colors and turn them into coherent images – seeing that this shape belongs with the tree but that shape belongs with the fence and so on and so forth.

Though I do sometimes think it would be cool if I could choose to not visually process so far, and only see the world as those shapes and colors all jumbled together, with no rhyme or reason involved. But only if I could choose to go back at any time. I may be artificially creating order, but it’s pretty darn useful to do.


Filed under ramble

2 responses to “Orderliness

  1. Possum

    I get something like that, but with sounds. Specifically human speech. When I’m expecting it I’m always fine but often when someone says something to me out of the blue, the sequence goes like this: a sound, human speech, meaning. It can take from a few seconds to hours for understanding to suddenly pop into my head.

    At first I thought, I’m not as philosophical as you are about this, but actually I am very aware that language is always an approximation and a symbol. I wonder if my experiences and that awareness are connected.

    A long, long time ago I read about people who grew up deaf and had their hearing restored as adults, and I think also blind people in the same situation. At first the new sense was an uninterpretable jumble and was not at all useful until later when they (learned? adjusted? both? I can’t remember.)

    I agree with you. I’d like to experience the world like that to get away from language and categories and the automatic interpretations they bring, but only if I could switch back and forth as I wanted.

  2. I like the comparison between the shapes becoming a boat, and trying to order thoughts and ideas into a sensemaking narrative about the world, a sort of unifying theory that helps us live our lives. I think what you describe is the first stage of cognitive dissonance, “this doesn’t fit my preconceived patterns and categories, so I’m going to reject it, but I can’t reject it because it’s there, so I’m just going to get really angry and see if that fixes it”. Except that obviously you’re not rejecting it. Less stress all around! 🙂