On Seeing and Thinking

Posted on April 20, 2013


What we call "thinking" is not above and beyond perception, but the essential ingredient in perception itself.

The image-making function of the eye should not be the limit of what we mean when we talk about perception.

What does it mean to see? To think? To what extent can we talk about seeing as a variety of thinking?* And, from that, if our schools aim to help students develop and improve their thinking about the world (is this how we define intelligence?), shouldn’t our schools aim to help students improve all kinds of thinking (i.e. not just symbolic-linguistic thinking)?

I’ve been deeply occupied with these questions lately. They have very much to do with the content of my class (visual storytelling broadly, video production specifically), so there is a natural affinity between this line of thought and the lines of thought that inform my lesson and project planning. But on a deeper level, I’ve become increasingly concerned about what I believe to be persistent and widespread shortcomings in the way we (all of us–teachers, the public, policymakers, students) talk about and think about the purposes of education, especially public education. The whole affair seems profoundly out of step with our world. In our efforts to make school “rigorous” we’ve also separated the intellectual work of school from the primary intellectual work of living. (That, or perhaps we’re witnessing vast operation aimed at eradicating certain ways of thinking and knowing.)

Anyway, this is a post about seeing and thinking, so I’ll keep this digression brief: visual thinking is at the top of my list of Types of Thinking Schools Discourage or Undervalue. (I actually have a list.) And I belive this fact stems from a mistaken distinction we commonly draw between seeing and thinking.

There are good reasons that we traditionally draw a distinction between seeing and thinking. For the sake of theoretical simplicity and clarity, it perhaps seems natural to distinguish between what comes in through the eyes and what happens in the mind. Seems simple enough: the world casts its reflection upon the eye, the reflected image goes to the brain, and this sense-data serves as raw material for the brain to process–to scrutinize, to organize, and to store. It really does seem like two discrete processes: a passive seeing, and an active power of elaboration. The eyes and the mind. The thinking begins when the work of the senses is complete.

You’ve probably done a dissection of a cow’s eye. You can see projected on the retinal background a tiny and faithful image of the physical world. But as we all know, this image is not an equivalent of the world. The world in our  minds–as opposed to the world outside–is embroidered with informational and emotional associations and context. In short, our mental images of the world differ importantly from the image cast by the eye’s lens onto our retina, and so it seems natural to attribute these differences to processes in the mind that occur after the sense of vision has done its work. We see stuff, then we think about it.

But it isn’t so simple.

Even the most elementary visual experiences reveal the shortcomings of this view–a view that understands seeing as passive reception. As I open my eyes, I find myself surrounded by the physical world: a painted wall, an open window, curtains gently shifting in the wind, dust motes swirling in the morning sun, my wife beside me, my body. These things would be here whether I opened my eyes or not. And it is tempting to say, because this world exists by itself, and because my eyes have received its projection, that I have seen the world.

But seeing is much more than mere awareness of the physical world that surrounds us. Our awareness does not emerge all at once; there is simply too much world. Through this world roams the glance, directed by attention, focusing the narrow range of our sharpest vision now on this, now on that spot, following the flight of a bird, scanning a tree to explore its shape or to look for mushrooms at its base. We can no more see everything than we can know everything. Our visual sense and our cognitive processes work together to explore, select, complete, and contextualize the stuff of the physical world. It is an eminently active performance, and it is what is truly meant by visual perception. This is what it means to see.

There is no way we can easily separate perception from cognition–seeing from thinking. There is no basic difference between what happens when a person looks at the world directly and when she sits with her eyes closed and thinks about it.

Our schools don’t typically talk about seeing. Schools don’t typically encourage students to develop awareness of visual thinking. Or, if they do, they do so only in elective art classes, or as an occasional novelty or break from the “real work” of “actual thinking.” This perpetuates the myth that visual thinking is somehow distinct from rational or disciplined thinking, when in fact disciplined perception is a capacity that greatly enriches rational thinking in all areas and in all domains. Seeing is taken for granted as being easy. Obvious. Passive. Like the physical world, a given. (And this despite the fact that most of us, at one time or another, have probably been shaken by having our attention turned by another person to something in the world we hadn’t before seen.) Our educational system lives under the illusion that seeing and thinking are separate. And so most students will have to learn on their own how to become better at applying their minds, at directing their attention, and at understanding their perceptions of the world they (and others) inhabit. This is difficult work, and our schools dismiss it as frivolous.

There isn’t time here to linger on one last point, so I’ll just leave it here: one wonders, especially given the profound difficulties we face in this world, why we should choose to exclude or neglect any of our natural resources for better thinking. One wonders what we stand to lose.

*This post borrows very heavily (and unashamedly) from several works that have greatly influenced my thinking on these matters: Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking, Robert McKim’s Experiences in Visual Thinking, and, somewhat indirectly, Kieran Egan’s Imagination in Teaching and Learning: The Middle School Years.

photo credit: Jennuine Captures via photopin cc