Tag Archives: perception


System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. 
– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (81)


I spent the greater part of my working hours this past week removing books from the library shelves and stamping them “withdrawn.” Feeling something of the executioner, I began to muse on the psychological effect it might have on me to stamp the word, “withdrawn” “withdrawn” “WITHDRAWN” over and over again.

One further limitation of System 1 is that it can not be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it (25)

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow names the differing ways of thinking, respectively, System 1 and System 2. The part we know and believe to be firmly in control is System 2, all activity that requires conscious thought lives in this system. The unfortunate news that Kahneman shares in his book is the overwhelming evidence that System 1 is in fact (smugly, no doubt) running the show. System 1 is so firmly in control of our reactions, impressions, and judgements, that it hardly need deign to acknowledge its domination.

The technical definition of heuristics is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka (98).

Admittedly heuristics is a good thing. We are not after all computers and lack the ability to algorithmically function in real time. Lord knows I’m all for split second, heuristics. Or so I thought. I don’t want to make an enemy of my own brain, but the fact that System 1’s default attitude is to believe, always to believe, concerns me.

declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true (212).

Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me. Standing in the back of the stacks with my red stamp – withdrawn, withdrawn, withdrawn, the frame of my life takes on a rather pathetic hue. What might I be feeling if the word was “discard?” I shudder to think. But never mind “discard,” the depressing point, according to Kahneman is that if the word had been “keep” or “valued” I probably would not have even noticed. It doesn’t fit into my story.

A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).

As the acidic paper of the books I remove from the shelves flake and fall, strewing my hair and the floor with brittle specks of lonely confetti, I force System 2 to step it up. How we frame events, the tension between our remembering selves and our experiencing selves  makes a real difference to the actual quality of our lives. Kahneman mentions movements and policies, at the end of the book, that aim to help us help ourselves when dealing with all of our innate (and not always negative) judgment disabilities. And that is some cause for celebration. For hope.

Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound (367).

An admission that we know nothing,  yet relentlessly protect our belief systems against reality, is a healthy thing to keep in mind – I’m talking to you System 1! Understanding how profound our mental biases and tendencies are leaves me feeling that much more like useless confetti helplessly blowing about- it’s no use! but, never fear- my optimism bias kicks in and I just KNOW that acceptance is the first step! All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could – oh dear, I must confess my cynicism bias can kick my optimism bias’s ass any day of the week…..In the meantime I take some solace in the ineluctable certainly that, it is not just me. My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it (402)


Divisible Indivisibility of Color (or love)

The number of colors is infinite, yet every two opposite colors contain elements, the full possibility, of all the others. – Arthur Schopenhauer, On Vision and Colors

ImageI have to admit, I may have skimmed a few paragraphs of Schopenhauer’s On Vision and Color – it was too painful. After keeping me enthralled with his passionate explanation of his theory of the subjectivity of color, he spent a few pages lambasting and taunting all the idiots of the world who disagreed with him. Of Scherffer, for example, he writes:

He reaches for all kinds of wretched and absurd hypotheses, wriggles pathetically, and in the end lets the issue rest (84).

Ouch. They would be harsh words had Schopenhauer been correct. But the fact that he is mostly wrong makes it quite uncomfortable to read. I say “mostly” because there is an interesting truth to his ideas when we consider Copernicus’s words (which Schopenhauer quotes) “compare, when allowed, small things with great.”

This explains their striking, every other color combination surpassing harmony, the power with which they call for each other and bring each other about, and the outstanding beauty that we confer on each of them by itself and even more so on both together (66).

To what is he referring? None other than the par excellent purity of red and green. “They call for each other,” I love that. He uses words like, “marriage,” “intimate union,” “affinities,” and “attractions.” He mathematically computes the amount of…love between colors and speaks to the impossibility of separation:

Therefore, chromatically we may not speak at all of individual colors, but only of color pairs: each pair represents the totality of the activity of the retina divided by two halves (70).

It’s a love story. Clearly.

Schopenhauer’s theory (which in the book I read is followed by Philip Otto Runge’s Color Sphere) rests on his idea that color is wholly subjective- an activity of the retina in which the the retina divides and then intellectually perceives colors rather than the objective color wave theory. So he got it wrong. But the beauty of his prose, the philosophy and artistry of his thinking was not lost on all. According to the introduction by Georg Stahl, Gerrit Rietveld (of the De Stijl group) was particularly influenced by Schopenhauer’s theory. Klee was equally enamored with Runge’s Color Sphere and used it in his teaching at the Bauhaus. Although Runge’s spheres are beautiful he pulls back from the romance of Schopanhauer’s prose a bit:

All five elements to each other – through their differences and affinities – form a perfect sphere, the surface of which contains all the elements and those mixtures that produced through a friendly mutual affinity of the qualities for each other (131). – Runge, Color Sphere

From lovers to friends, oh well.

Everyone must therefore carry within them a norm, an ideal, an Epicurean anticipation, about yellow and every color, independent of experience, with which they compare each actual color (69).

“An Epicurean anticipation” is a fabulous use of language. And the discussion of ideals in music and colors that Schopenhauer goes into relates so nicely to Semir Zeki’s book (which is of course the reason I read Goethe’s Theory of Color and On Vision and Color in the first place). Politely disregarding Schopenhauer’s hubris and considering the time in which he lived, where an invention such as the Daguerreotype might encourage him to draw false conclusions:

[reproducing] in its purely objective way, everything visible about bodies, but not color (97). (emphasis mine)

one can, at the very least, appreciate the philosophy of subjectivity that, I think, has some merit. After all, just yesterday I forwarded, to a pink-loathing friend of mine, an article which showed that pink does not actually exist as a color. It is merely our minds (groping for closure) filling in the gap left by the color waves that the human eye can not perceive. It seems to me one must be taken with the other, after all.

There can be no object without subject and no subject without object, since perceptions are defined by both (17).



Quiddity of the False Azure

All colors made me happy: even gray. — Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (line 29)

The weaker the organ the longer the impression of the image lasts. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (pg 51, section 121. )

Scan 13My recent inquiries into perception made me curious to know the oft-cited primary text of Goethe’s Theory of Colours. It is an interesting read, particularly as the content has been thoroughly disapproved making the reading of it a philosophical or poetical exercise more than a scientific one.

Time means succession, and succession, change:
Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange
Schedules of sentiment…
 —Pale Fire (lines 567-569)

Thus inspiration already presupposes expiration; thus every systole its diastole. —Theory of Colour (15, section 38.)

The beautiful fiction in the non-fiction that is twisted inadvertently by Goethe is  conversely, in Pale Fire, “written” by John Shade in four cantos, and yet, similarly, bent. Nabokov elegantly distorts fiction and non-fiction and intentionally plays a stark psychology off the poetical and philosophical posit. The ruse of John Shade is elaborate…what is the purpose? It seems to me that by creating, for example through the officialness of the “About the Author” page followed by “Other Books by the Author,” a Nabokovian mocking of the surety of our perception of truth gains a profoundly moving and tender, if tremulous, capital T Truth.

Life Everlasting-based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that
Was the real point, the counterpuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
 —Pale Fire (lines 803-815)

If Goethe is correct that the longer an impression lasts, the weaker the organ, than I must have a very weak heart. In Pale Fire (particularly the Ginko Press edition I experienced— because it was more than something to be merely read) a persistent ache of a melancholy color bleeds and stains, and yet, and yet… there is a rising blush of “Faint hope.”

*Theory of Colours  translated from the German with notes by Charles Lock Eastlake

**Title from opening stanza of Pale Fire –
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane

*** “Faint Hope.” final sentence of Pale Fire

Simple Rather Than Truthful

The human mind receives, shapes, and interprets its image of the outer world with all its conscious and unconscious powers, and the realm of the unconscious could never enter our experience without the reflection of perceivable things. (461)


Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye written by Rudolf Arnheim in 1954 is a fascinating study- not because of its freshness (many of the concepts discussed have long become part of the canon of psychology 101) but rather while revisiting these well known ideas, larger connections can be made. Art is such a seductive practice, both in a tactile as well as an emotional or intellectual sense. The fact is, we, as humans ,enjoy it.

It is an exciting experience to bring about something visible that was not there before […] It is simple sensory pleasure which remains undiminished even in the adult artist (171)

It is for that reason that considering the distortions and anti-distortions that are required for our minds to process what our eyes deliver is so very interesting and in my view,  poetically profound.

“He was a very skillful artist,” says Goethe of a painter friend of his, “and he was among the few who know how to transform artifice entirely into nature and nature entirely into art. They are exactly the ones whose misunderstood merits keep giving rise to the doctrine of false naturalness.” (97)

A “parsimony of perspective” rules our lives- not just visually, but materially. What is the simplest way to make sense of something? Visually our minds run to the familiar shapes, with all sorts of preferences for completion, concavity, balance, foreground, and pattern. It makes me wonder if these preferences carry over to other aspects: music-yes, literature- yes, our emotional lives?  Status quo is a powerful force because of this multi-faceted psychological disposition for the familiar to cling to- what’s easiest, go along and get along despite the truth of what may be before us.

When vision has to choose between a deformed cubic room populated by normal-sized people and a regular rectangular room with people of weirdly unnatural size, it chooses the latter. (275)

 And yet, these points of perspective that can be mastered by keen artistry, may be the very source of an inability to react honestly to truth. Our minds are geared to “make it work.” But sometimes when we let ourselves see the parts that don’t fit, what’s different and against the grain- that is where the possibility of profoundly altering our perspective exists. That is the domain of the mysterious truth, and it is where we  deeply experience the wonder of the world. A sudden burst of insight makes the disordered facts all add up in an entirely new and expansive way.

*  Title from – chapter sub-heading (271)
**Désarçonner (to unseat)- J. Ryan 1986, pencil and mixed media

Trompe l’oeil


The Dead Thrush. Jean-Antoine Houdon in the Portico Gallery of the The Frick

I spent Sunday afternoon at The Frick Collection in NYC with my daughter and two friends. I hadn’t been for many years. I really wanted to see Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. When you get to know a painting from an image in a book or on the computer the truth is- you have no idea what you are looking at. So many perceptual cues are removed:  the true color, hue and scale are mere whims of a lens, paper or screen through which you see a tiny representation of the actual object.


Truth and certainty are concepts that I cannot grasp yet continually grapple with. A trompe l’oeil is an overt attempt to control the “truth” of the viewer’s eye and brain. Houdon’s marble relief sculpture of a dead thrush was made (according to the Frick’s info) for the purpose of proving sculpture to be a superior demonstration of art’s ability to fool your eye. It is a stunning work. Your brain knows it is hard, cold marble, but that belly, that belly… is soft, the thin wings still warm with the vestiges of life, you’d swear the feathers had just billowed in a quiet breeze. The sculptured thrush is life size and the urge to gently hold this little bird in your hand is intense.  The artist has done all he could to complete the deception.

But there are many levels of deception. Standing in front of St. Francis in the Desert was mesmerizing for its beauty, but also because of the adjustment I had to make when confronted with the truth of the real painting. The colors were nothing that could be reproduced on thin, dry paper. The sheen and smoothness of the paint, the clarity and calm of the large painting were all but unknown to me. And yet, and yet, I had loved the piece before I ever really saw it.

I have always been hesitant to enjoy the feeling of “knowing,” always certain of only one thing- my uncertainty. And while it may be a measure of my own insecurities,  my life has discouraged the comfort of surety. Forays into the foreign terrain of certainty have been disastrous for me. But at the same time the suspicion that I stubbornly hold, that I am correct to doubt, is verified in matters large and small.

What comfort there is to be had stems from an understanding that what we think we know is but a hollow perception of time, influence, and circumstance. The rigidity of certainty will only break your heart. Better to appreciate each day, each work of art,  beautiful poem or person, for the changing, evolving things they truly are, in whatever form that it is available to you- now.