“Visual reality is in itself a carefully constructed optical illusion…”
AXNS Collective – Arts X Neuroscience – just published an article on “The Analysis of Beauty & Blind Spots – Evolution & Neuroscience”. The article revisits some ideas, which are discussed in the “Rorschach Audio” book and on this website, in context however of material which includes passages on opthalmic neuroscience quoted from Aldous Huxley. The article places discussion of “The Analysis of Beauty” in context of a broader argument about how certain types of perceptual phenomena demonstrate the extent to which “visual reality is in itself a carefully constructed optical illusion”, being very careful to stress however that such illusions “usually provide accurate descriptions of our external world”. In addition, the suggestion that the mind might also be able to “switch off” visual objects (which exist right there in front of us) may also seem counterintuitive, however the article responds to William Hogarth’s assertion that “the eye may be subdued and forced into forming and disposing of objects even quite contrary to what it would naturally see them, by the prejudgment of the mind” (emphases added) by showing how the mind can and does “edit” whole objects into and out of visual perception as a matter of routine…
For reasons of space, it wasn’t possible to include all the quotes from Aldous Huxley in the article for AXNS, so, in context of this website, it’s helpful to add some more detail. In his book “The Art of Seeing” Aldous Huxley states that “sensing is not the same as perceiving” and that “the eyes and nervous system do the sensing, the mind does the perceiving”. Huxley describes how “in adults, the three processes of sensing, selecting and perceiving are for all intents and purposes simultaneous”, with the effect that under normal circumstances “we are only aware of the total process of seeing objects and not of the subsidiary processes which culminate in seeing”. Huxley goes on to describe how “by inhibiting the activity of the interpreting mind”, it is however possible to “catch a hint of the raw sensum [sense data] as it presents itself to the eyes of the newborn child”, and how “for the adult, a complete recapture of the experience of pure sensation, without perception of physical objects, is possible, in most cases, only in certain abnormal conditions, when the upper levels of the mind have been put out of action by drugs or disease”.
Aldous Huxley describes “an experience of my own”, recalling how “coming out of an anaesthetic administered in a dentist’s chair” produced the effect that “returning awareness began with pure visual sensations completely devoid of significance”. These sensations “were not objects existing ‘out there’ in the familiar, three-dimensional world”, but were “just coloured patches, existing in and for themselves, unrelated not only to the external world, but also to myself – for the knowledge of self was still wholly lacking, and these meaningless and unattached sense impressions were not mine, they simply were.” As the anaesthetic wore off these coloured patches became “associated with certain objects ‘out there’ in the external three-dimensional world”, and Huxley goes on to describe how his mind progressively identified and categorised these objects, increasingly relating them to his own memories and to his re-emerging sense of self. Then, perhaps most revealingly, Huxley describes how these thought-processes themselves led to “further clarification of vision”.
Now, I’m aware that there’s some controversy about some of the content in “The Art of Seeing”, however that relates to debate about the efficacy of specific therapeutic procedures advocated by Huxley, and not to his insights into psychology of perception. It should also be stressed that studies of illusions also provide very powerful tools for studying perception.
Source – Aldous Huxley “The Art of Seeing” Chatto & Windus 1943