by Joel Levinson
In Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Helena declares, “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.” Shakespeare, so perspicacious about so many subjects, could have reached even further in this observation (if the fruits of modern science had been available to him), and asked Helena to proclaim more broadly, “We look not with the eyes but with the mind.”
That phrase sounds so simple and innocent. We’re inclined to embrace the poetic and figurative implications of the notion even though we’re dead certain we actually see the world with our eyes. The fact is, however, we don’t see with our eyes. Vision is an illusionistic phenomenon that is so overwhelmingly convincing that it’s hard to believe –some might say impossible to believe – that we don’t actually see what’s out there on the world side of our eyeballs. Nonsense, many of you will assert, we certainly see what’s out there.
Let’s parse the word see. Take the phrase “in the distance she could see the blue ocean.” We understand this to mean that she is looking out across space and sees out there the ocean glittering in the sunlight. What I intend to illuminate in this article is that it is physically impossible to see anything out there and that the very experience of seeing is fundamentally and necessarily illusionistic.
Seeing is an image-making phenomenon that occurs only in the brain. As Shakespeare rightly claimed, we see with the mind. What we think we see out there is really what the complicated process of cognition constructs in here (tap your skull, please). When I share this notion with friends, they ask with alarm, “You don’t really mean to suggest that what I see with my eyes is an illusion and that there is really nothing out there – that seeing essentially is a hallucination.” No, I am not saying that. There is something out there but it’s different from what we perceive (read: cognitively fabricate).
Lift your eyes from this page of the Local and look at something or somebody nearby. There is no question in your mind that you see across the space that separates you from the person or thing you’re observing. You’re convinced that you see your subject across space and they are real. Right? Yes, they are real. But no, you don’t see them out there. It is physically impossible to see anything out there on the far side of your eyes. But why?
The ancient Greeks, specifically Empedocles and Plato, believed there was some form of fire inside the eye, a spear of which shoots out of the pupil the way light shines from a flashlight. They believed that that spear of eye-fire darts out, touches, and brings back to the observer the essence of the object seen.
Science, however, tells us the eye is simply a part of your brain that acts like a passive funnel and merely collects a portion of the billions of photons per second that bombard your face. Roughly 1,500 years after the Greeks, an Arab by the name of Alhazen understood that the eye is but a dark chamber and light enters in carrying information from the outside world. But the light doesn’t carry a ready-made picture; the picture we experience must first be fabricated.
Light simply carries energy packets of varying wavelengths on a one-way trip into the cranium. Rods and cones at the back of the eyeball convert the energy into electro-chemical impulses, sending those impulses in a micro fraction of a second to nature’s astounding cognition factory that is the brain. Impulses are shot back and forth between various processing centers in the gray matter where the impulses are shaped and reshaped using, in part, a lifetime of your memories to build the image.
Some brain cells, for instance, only recognize vertical lines, others only horizontal lines, and still others only diagonal lines. Thousands of other cognitive picture-building actions occur in a billionth the time it takes to wink. It’s a miraculous process evolved over eons to serve organism survival – your survival. Avoid that car. Find your next meal. Look for a companion.
Too incredible to believe? Consider this. Imagine someone has slowed down light to a snail’s pace while you’re looking at a mountain. While you’re still facing the mountain, you close your eyes. Just before you open your eyes, a huge lead curtain a football field away, descends between you and the mountain blocking the view. You open your eyes. The slow crawling light beam that originally emanated from the mountain now travels from your side of the lead curtain into your eyes. Voila! You “see” the mountain for a short time with exactly the same detail as before the curtain had descended and yet the view of the mountain is totally blocked by the opaque curtain. Such is the illusionistic nature of perception. From this, one must also conclude that color is not a real aspect of the world out there, but a constructed sensation that exists only in the mind of some sentient beings.
Shakespeare was on the right track again when he wrote, “When most I wink, then do my eyes best see.”
Contact Joel Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org