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“Golamandi”, from a new painting series

As athletes tend to their bodies, artists tend to their perceptions. But as our knowledge of peak athletic performance continues to improve, the domain of consciousness and perception is still full of mystery.

Consider this from Nicholas Humphrey in the New York Times Book Review:

A few days before a review of my latest book appeared in these pages, I wrote to my editor, saying I had seen an advance copy and how much I liked the color illustration of the yellow moon. He replied that I must be mistaken, since the Book Review doesn’t use color. The next weekend he wrote to say he couldn’t think what had come over him – he reads the Book Review every week, and had somehow not noticed the color. Odd. And yet these lapses can happen to the best of us. Ask yourself what the Roman number four on the face of the church clock looks like. Most people will answer it looks like IV, but almost certainly the truth is it looks like IIII.

Why are we so bad at knowing – in this case remembering – what passes through our own minds? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in “Perplexities of Consciousness,” contends that our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory. Despite what we believe about our powers of introspection, the reality is that we know awfully little about what our conscious experience amounts to. Even when reporting current experience, we make divergent, confused and even contradictory claims about what it’s like to be on the inside.

Humphrey draws upon the historical distinctions made between sensation and perception. Sensation is how we represent sensory stimuli at the surface of our bodies, and perception is how we represent the outside world in consciousness. Sensation is “raw and immediate”, perception more “categorical and slow.”

While sensation and perception have been confounded over the history of philosophical thought, Humphrey offers an extraordinary example of how we don’t neceesarily need sensation to perceive:

There is a clinical syndrome known as “blindsight,” resulting from brain damage, where the subject – to his own astonishment – finds he can “see” the properties of things he’s looking at, even though all visual sensation has been lost. He may indeed be able to guess what color an object is, without, as it were, seeing the color in color.

This concept is provocative. While this has been tested in brains that have been damaged, it does suggest that it might also be a quality of certain non-damaged brains as well. Humphrey commented earlier on how research has determined that some humans have “three times as much brain cortex assigned to receiving information from the eyes as others do.” Larger visual storage facilities? I like that idea. The concept of being able to “see” without the use of the eyes? Also appealing.

Every one of us loves our own story. We are all attached, consciously or unconsciously, to our very personal version of truth, our take on who is right, our convictions about what makes sense, our determinations about how one should live in the world. Certainly the fallacies in our thinking that blindside us about ourselves and others is one of the great themes so deftly handled by Jonathan Franzen in his spectacular new novel, Freedom.

It is also a concept that has come to have particular meaning to me in the last few weeks. A dear friend has recently become an ideological militant. She is taking the path of anger rather than gentle persuasion in her self-professed mission to change the world and to leave it a better place. The vitriol she has been spewing leaves an acidic residue on anyone within ear shot.

Cindy, a dear friend and a wise woman, wrote this to me recently when I told her about my discomfort:

I am struck with how much she loves her story. Before I did a lot of work on these issues, I would fight tooth and nail for my beliefs about things. One of the most helpful things I heard was this: “If you want to make someone happy, let them be right.” I know whenever I defend myself and my viewpoint, I am going to war. Who am I to make anyone believe or think differently than they do? If I loved them, wouldn’t it be an act of love to let them have their point of view in all its glory? And they will anyway…so in reality it’s hopeless. The question is, “Do I want to suffer over it?” That’s my choice.

Your friend seems quite happy with her anger. It seems to be working for her as far as I can tell. And for me, I’d ask, what does her anger have to do with me? What does her opinion of anything have to do with me? She is just believing her thoughts.

Cindy’s words helped me see the transparency of my own biases. Of course they are there and of course they are relatively invisible to me. It goes without saying that I think that my view of things is right and that I see things clearly. I believe that coming from anger is a bust, that it repels people away from you and creates resistance to your ideas. If you really want to change the way people think and behave, you cannot come from condescension and contempt but from a place of vision, optimism and hope.

Says who? Says me I guess. My belief system is no more or less valid than its counter argument that anger is the only way to really bring about change. As Cindy pointed out, we are all in love with our own version of life.

Taking this stance of the either/or and the both/and doesn’t feel like prevarication or evasion to me. It feels more like some valuable life wisdom, the kind you get more of during the second half of your life.

Well anyway that’s my story.

An article about mirrors appeared in the New York Times two weeks ago, and its contents have continued to nag my mind. (An excerpt is on Slow Painting if you don’t want to read the whole piece.)

There are a number of threads in this piece that would be worth some time to delve into in more detail (like which species are self aware and recognize themselves when looking at a mirror), but right now I am going to just focus on just one—the human relationship with reflective surfaces.

Here is an example:

Researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.

But then it gets even more personal:

In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,”…Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”

The article goes on to explain why the version of ourselves that we see in the mirror is always exactly one half our actual size. (I know this sounds counterintuitive, but consult the article for the full scientific explanation.) So not only do we misread our relative attractiveness, we also misread our size.

Does this give you a sinking and slightly sickening feeling that we can ever really “get” who we are? For a number of reasons I found the results of this research deeply uncomfortable as well as unnervingly accurate. How many times have you misread how you look? Misjudged those new glass frames only to discover, $400 later, that they look terribly unflattering on your face? How many times have you bought that dress that you swear made you look sleek and sexy in the dressing room but in subsequent photographs your rear end appears hopelessly jumbo sized? It just isn’t possible–we cannot be objective when it comes to that other self that lives in the virtual reality we call our mirror image.

Maybe it is just one more aspect of ourselves we cannot ever see accurately. My friend Linda once said, “I wish someone had given me ‘the paragraph’ when I was younger.” I asked her what “the paragraph” was.

She said, “All your friends know your strengths and your weaknesses. They could, if they were so inclined, give you a one paragraph description of who you are that yes, could be painful, but could also be very helpful in how you live your life. But you rarely get that insight. It just lives out there. Maybe, if you are lucky, you’ll find someone who will give it to you. Or maybe you will actually find it yourself.”

I’m feeling more sympathy for my cat, not a member of a species that is self-reflective, who cannot see her “self” in a mirror and generally gives it little of her attention. Maybe I’m just one tiny step beyond her, seeing something I think is me that is, in fact, far from the paragraph I really need.