How van Gogh melted my mind – or The Realities of Perception

In this essay I explore the relationship between perception and reality. Mostly, I share two of the more remarkable experiences in my life, neither of which involved drugs, where that relationship became complex and challenging and revealed deep dynamics I never considered before. Having not seen this particular perspective written about elsewhere, and watching our perceptions being manipulated in dangerous ways – most noticeably by the current political drama in the US – I thought I’d take this opportunity to share it. We live in a world we shape, even as it shapes us.

(Aside: I’ve been working for more than a week on an article about sortition – random selection in politics – because the presidential race in the US has become surreal, almost beyond belief. We are in desperate need of alternatives – not just alternative candidates, but alternative systems, alternative worldviews, alternative visions… because the dominant system – and the culture that feeds it and that it feeds – will eat any truly alternative candidate alive. It pains me to see the massive waste of treasure, energy and care that goes into the futile effort to reach political wisdom through the existing electoral process. That process is too sophisticated and malevolent – like an armed drone – to deliver anything but increasing disaster, today and tomorrow. It is booby-trapped to capture our care and render it meaningless. So I was writing the essay on sortition, believing that if enough people realized its potential, they could start to make a real difference with it. But there was too much to say; it became too long, too unwieldily, too much to read. It would not work. So I set it aside. I am sending you something else, something shorter and more personal, something even more basic than politics. It will have little if any impact on the political spectacle we are witnessing. But it does have something to say about the trap we are in. – Tom)

Reality… experience… memory… I find them so relative, so fascinatingly mysterious, so dependent on our co-creation (either conscious or unconscious)….

I recall two experiences in my life that made me question if there was a reality totally independent of my perceptions. The first experience happened on a cot. The other was triggered by Vincent van Gogh.

That first one started quite calmly, almost sleepily. I was teenager napping in the sun on a cot outside my family’s house in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. Lying on my belly, I was lazily looking at the grass next to the cot, first through one eye, then through the other. Startled, I realized that the view through one eye was significantly yellower in tinge than the view through the other. That meant that what was a specific shade of “blue” in one eye was actually a different color than that same “blue” object seen through the other eye. (This difference between my two eyes lasted for many years, although it doesn’t seem very noticeable now.)

I got the weird feeling that I could be looking at something along with a friend and we’d be seeing something significantly different from each other. But we’d never know it because we had each grown up with our own consistent way of seeing and describing the world: All the words we used to describe it fit seamlessly with the objects and qualities around us: that is, we would SEE things differently from each other, but we’d use the same WORDS to describe them to each other. Since there would be no way to actually climb into each other’s minds – that is, to actually see through each other’s eyes – we couldn’t EXPERIENCE that difference, or even know for sure that that difference existed… or didn’t.

So what is “real,” given that our only access to “reality” is through our seemingly relative and booby-trapped senses? Even when we use tools that extend our senses – microscopes, telescopes, radios, chemical sensors, computers, journalists, and all the rest – in the end, all those signals still have to go through our bodily senses and mental interpretations. There’s no way around that.

The second experience was much more dramatic. It happened about 25 years ago.

I went to see a movie called VINCENT about Vincent van Gogh.  As the camera dived into Van Gogh’s paintings or into scenes he saw, a narrating voice read excerpts from his correspondence with his brother, detailing his passionate relationship with the details and colors of life, his experiments with his paints, the intense emotional color of his experience. At one point Vincent explains to his brother – as the camera homes in on vivid yellow images and brushstrokes – how his experience of color was sometimes so intense it actually hurt.

After the film, I stepped out of the darkened theater onto the summer sidewalk… and was shocked to find I saw no objects, only patterns of color. I froze in the bright afternoon, stunned and frightened. Then suddenly my vision – or that seamless mix of vision and interpretation – returned to normal: objects, spaces, and motion surrounded me, familiar and reassuring.

However, a few seconds later all that vanished again into the shifting patchwork of color… only to soon be replaced by the familiar world of objects. Back and forth my world flipped: each time, my return to normal perception lasted only a few seconds before switching back into the patterns-of-color mode. This disturbing but fascinating experience went on for several more minutes (my attention was so riveted that I have no actual idea how long I stood there – somewhere between one and three minutes, I think), with each phase lasting 5-10 seconds. I could think quite clearly about what was happening to me, but I seemed to have no control over the bizarre visual rearrangements.

What struck me most was that the patterns of color that my eyes were seeing were completely identical in both modes of perception. In one mode they resolved into independent objects – people, cars, trees, streets, buildings, bicycles – many of them moving or changing. In the other mode there were no objects and no motion, per se, only a shifting kaleidiscope of colors, colors which often blended into or connected with adjacent ones without the logic enforced by my usual sense of “object”. (Which makes me now wonder: Is that what “objectivity” is about?) An approaching “car” was made up of patterns of color immersed in and spreading out into the larger pattern of colors that was my field of vision – but it had no identity as a “car”, no separate reality from the colors around it. If the patterns-of-color mode had remained for a longer time, I might have been able to discern the car within that field as one discerns a wolf in the clouds or an archer in the stars.

I had several realizations in the midst of all this. First, it felt like the patterns-of-color mode was a more basic, straightforward, primally accurate (visual) record of what was “out there.” The other mode – the one with all the objects – was clearly a mental interpretation of (or construct made out of) that raw visual data. My second realization was that in the patterns-of-color mode, I couldn’t see the danger that the approaching car represented.

Presumably, over the eons of evolution, any entity that had that mode of perception would be picked off by predators or starve to death (since it couldn’t identify food) or it would stumble “blindly” into trees and off cliffs – or be run over by cars or mammoths. For so many reasons, it would definitely have problems reproducing. Despite the “accuracy” of its perceptions, it would definitely be “selected out” of the evolving gene pool. Thus, since organisms that experienced life as objects and motions were so much more able to survive, more of them evolved to interpret these visual patterns as objects and motion. That’s what they SAW. Maybe we objects-and-motion folks are all that’s left standing… although it is hard to tell, given the first story I told above about my teenage realizations on the cot.

Standing there on the sidewalk outside the theater after my immersion in van Gogh’s universe, I reflected on the fact that we don’t NATURALLY perceive radio waves, gamma waves, microscopic pollution particles, and quite a lot of other things “that are there” (as evidenced by scientific instruments) because there was (until recently) no survival-oriented reason to perceive them. In fact, perceiving something that we don’t “need” to perceive could be an evolutionary handicap, cluttering up our experience and making it harder for us to distinguish realities more relevant to our survival. It would be “noise” interfering with our ability to notice important “signals”. (I won’t in this essay pursue this very important line of inquiry in depth, but I do wish to note that it has social analogs, including how the clutter of entertainment, political “spin” and certain kinds of news can distract us collectively from perceiving social and environmental realities crucial to our collective survival.)

So I began to wonder: Are we really “perceiving what’s out there”? Is there really an “out there” for “us” to perceive? How would we know?

Several years later I read the quantum theory that observation causes a “field of probability” to coalesce or “collapse” or “relevate” into a perceived manifestation (a field of 100% probability). We can legitimately say that the solidity and shape and color that we associate with “reality” are “emergent phenomena” arising out of the interactions of umpteen trillions of seemingly ghostly quantum phenomena “in our nervous systems” and “in the world” which – together with culturally induced stories and assumptions about reality – generate the “world” we think of as “really there.”

This of course aligns with discoveries that most animals experience a significantly differently reality than we do – from seeing ultraviolet and polarized light to having compound eyes or eyes on the sides of their heads or “seeing” with radar-like sound. Of course, we can analyze their sense organs and extrapolate what that might mean about what they see, but – going back to my experience on the cot – we have no idea what their EXPERIENCE of the world is actually like.

Reflecting on my Van Gogh-triggered event some days later, I imagined a baby lying in a crib staring unfocused into space, waving its arms in random ways, and suddenly bumping its hand against a mobile hanging over its crib. The baby gives a start, its eyes widen and move about disconcertedly, and then it goes back to waving its arms. It occurred to me that the baby was perhaps seeing what I saw when I walked out of the theater – shifting patterns of color, no objects, no distance, no motion-through-space. It will only be through physical contact (of many kinds, with many things – like mobiles and spoons) that it will learn to correlate 3D shape, size and perspective into a perception of “objects,” “location” and “motion”, and to relate that to its own slowly coalescing sense of a separate self. Accidentally bumping into things is an early step, triggering a cascade of diverse but obviously connected sensory inputs which cry out for “sense-making”. (Rummaging for its mother’s breast happens even earlier but, given mother’s help in reaching it, that is probably less of a learning challenge and thus less of a developmental leap.)

Piaget’s developmental stages figure in here. For example, every parent has observed another leap about space and solidity when their baby realizes that the parent hasn’t disappeared but, rather, is “hiding” “behind” “the couch”. The three dimensions of the physical world fall into place.

I wondered if perhaps after the movie, I may have momentarily slipped into this primal infant-seeing. The reason an infant can survive with that primal perception for the months of its early development is the close care of family, friends, community – who go on to instill the social preconceptions which further structure the child’s “reality.” It is within that reality that the infant – that all of us – can both survive and relate to each other.

So, to paraphrase Rumi, we could say:

There is a field
beyond ideas of reality and unreality.
I’ll meet you there.

If we can come to terms with the extent to which our sense of “reality” is constructed by our biological, cognitive, psychological, and social interpretations, perhaps we can realize how much our current sense of reality is now trapping us in a view of the world that no longer applies. We have made a different world than the one within which our primal sense of things evolved, and it is becoming more different with every passing day. We face challenges – most of which we created, usually collectively and without realizing it – that we aren’t even built to perceive, to say nothing of respond to as naturally as we respond to a physical assault or a tasty meal. We need to develop new capacities – to some extent individual but overwhelmingly collective – that will enable us to “see” what we face and respond – mostly collectively – in ways that work. We’ll either do that consciously or natural selection will do it for us.

Note: My take on all this is intimately related to – but substantively different from – the more New Age view that combines the assumed supremacy of consciousness with the insights of quantum physics. The ultimate conclusion of the New Age view is that our beliefs and intentions have a direct impact on reality. While there is a lot of juicy (and controversial) evidence and practice associated with this worldview, it is different from what I am saying in the essay above. For one cogent description of that worldview, see Deepak Chopra’s “Is a Mind-Element Needed to Interpret Quantum Mechanics? Do physically undetermined choices enter into the evolution of the physical universe?”

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