It should come as no surprise that what you see is not determined solely by the patterns of light that fall upon your retinae. Indeed, that visual perception is more than meets the eye has been understood for centuries, and there are several extraretinal factors known to interact with the incoming sensory data to yield perceptual experience. Perhaps foremost among these factors is information learned from our prior encounters with the visual world—our memories—which enables us to infer the cause, category, meaning, utility, and value of retinal images. By this process, the inherent ambiguity and incompleteness of information in the image—what is out there? Have I seen it before? What does it mean? How is it used?—is overcome, nearly instantaneously and generally without awareness, to yield unequivocal and behaviorally informative percepts.--Thomas D. Albright, On the Perception of Probable Things: Neural Substrates of Associative Memory, Imagery, and Perception
Simplifying concepts outlined beautifully in Reductionism in Art and Brain Science* by Eric Kandel, when presented with an object or graphic, prior knowledge or learned visual associations --described as top-down neuronal processing occur. These processes occur after the brain extracts “key elements” of what is known in the physical world and are necessary to help resolve whatever ambiguities remain. As an example, when you first view the image above it may appear ambiguous and undecipherable. With only bottom up processing and nothing to aid in recall we aren’t quite sure of the representation.
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Think of the influences our neuronal associative learning has over our interpretation of graphical information. A few decades ago I was participating in a journal club for fellows in internal medicine. They were instructed to basically skip the abstract (can be quite subjective) and head over to the results section. The focus was examining the figures to gleen insights there. What evolved years later was a realization that this approach is also problematic.
In the same way that pre-attentive attributes can help direct the eye to important features--they can also mask other insights by drawing the eye disproportionately to where you want the focus. The "look over here and not over" there methodology often distracts from relevant outliers.
Salman Rushdie in his brilliant MasterClass describes the action happening in the center of works of art. That is where we are intended to look. But then he adds the importance of scanning the periphery as well. Often you will see added context provided by servants or others not deemed the singular objective of the image. When examining graphics for insights, context is everything.
Las Meninas by Velaquez is a painting I like to include in my data storytelling workshops. Thanks to Amy Herman and her Art of Perception, a friend and powerful resource for enhancing observation and perception skills for clients like Intelligence, Law Enforcement and Military (Interpol, FBI, Department of Defense) as well as Medicine and Law to name a few--I look at data differently.
Art can be a safe place to teach skills needed to clinically review the literature, scan a patient chart, or curate data for relevance and insight.
How would you describe the painting? Can you say anything about the perspective of the image? Did you notice the mirror? What does it say about art and reality? Where is the subject?
Consider the image below. Now look up at the original black and white patterns above. Now that the top-down processing has a “memory” or association--you can now distinguish the image.
The biggest challenge is often releasing our pre-conceived ideas and leaning into the realm of not knowing, what we don’t know. The opportunity is there.
Right outside of the frame.
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In a world of "evidence-based" medicine I am a bigger fan of practice-based evidence.
Remember the quote by Upton Sinclair...
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”