The Science Of Seeing
Infinite Shades of Grey
How much of what we know about the world is relative to our perception and the way we see things? Are we all looking at the same thing or are there infinite shades of grey?
18th century philosopher David Hume was most interested in the spontaneous experience of everyday life — he wanted to understand how a child experiences the world. As an empiricist, Hume’s preoccupation was with knowledge derived from sensory perception. To see is to know. He believed that everything we think and know was preceded by a corresponding sensory experience (with the exception of his “Missing Shade of Blue” problem).
Ophthalmologists are developing a new retinal prosthesis device that allows blind people to have partial vision — or at least enough that they can make out shapes and safely avoid many dangerous situations. While the device doesn’t completely cure blindness, it has the potential to drastically alter a person’s way of life. For people who otherwise operate in the dark, this device may enhance their vision of the world in ways they never thought possible.
What might Hume say about this new breakthrough in optics and the altered worldview that accompanies it? What is the link between knowing and seeing? And how does that knowledge — and our vision of it — change with our empirical experiences?
We take for granted the relativity of sight. Do we all see the same thing? How do we know if the colors we see are the same colors seen by others? When someone says that the sky is blue, it creates an experience within ourselves that relates the color blue to previous experiences we’ve had with the color blue. But how do I know that the “blue experience” I’m having is the same one that you’re having? Since we are never able to see what another is seeing, there is no way of knowing whether our blue experiences match.
The same may be said for human experiences. We all see certain experiences and events in life differently from others. But what “colors” the way we see something? What changes the way we envision the world? Sometimes it’s a relationship or a personal encounter; other times it’s a traumatic life event.
RadioLab did a story on two blind men who see the world in completely different ways. One, John Hull, slowly became blind and decided that the world is not the way he remembered it — and so stopped picturing it all together. He was convinced that the reality that he lived in was not the one that existed. John: “I made the decision to not picture what my wife looked like. I can’t bear to be wrong and there’s no way I could ever remember exactly what she looked like.”
The other, Zoltan Torey, lost his sight suddenly in a lab. He could not live without images and dealt with his blindness by continually painting and creating vivid imagery of what he thinks is his reality. Zoltan: “I decided to recreate the world exactly the way I sense it through detailed images. It’s like living with a continually produced film strip.”
Which is correct? How do events like these change how we view and exist in the world?
Sometimes our vision is transformed not by empiricism but by our bodies themselves. Synesthesia is a neurological condition linked to increased connectivity in the brain, which causes people to blend senses together (i.e. seeing numbers, music, or even emotions as colors). For example when Anders, a 21 year old student sees the number four, she also sees “an intense sky blue.” Synesthesia is a condition that scientists are not trying to cure. Rather, they are trying to study it to explain certain complicated regions of the brain with no previous connection. Synesthesia, like other neurological disorders, changes the way people perceive and see reality. But is this a bad thing? The American Synesthesia Association doesn’t think so. They encourage synesthetes to connect with and express their creativity and share their unique way of seeing the world with the rest of us.
Feeling inspired to expand and explore the vicissitudes of your own sight and personal perception? Here are some fun, vision-altering starting points:
- Consider “Dark Dining”: Originating in France, dark diners are blindfolded and served (by legally blind waiters) in the dark — unable to see their food and unaware of what they’re about to eat. When one sense is impaired, other senses are heightened, making for an entirely new and different dining experience. Here are some dark dining restaurants in NYC: Camaje, Dans le Noir.
- Take this image-based personality test that determines information about your personality by allowing you to choose which images resonate with who you are. (For the most accurate results, trust your first instincts and don’t overthink what the images mean to you.)
- Enlist a friend to stare at these optical illusions with you. How does your perception differ?