The Art of Perception: sight and mental health

The process of seeing involves light entering our eyes and influencing the physiological mechanisms for sight in our brains. At the back of our eyes is our “retina” which is largely composed of “cones” and “rods” that interpret visual information. The cones and rods send communication signals via nerve impulses to our visual cortex and other parts of the brain. Interpretations of what is seen is a combination of direct information provided by our sensory organs (the eyes) and internal processes that apply meaning to what we see. In other words, what we see is based upon what is in front of us and our memories, prior knowledge, associated feelings, cognitive interpretations, and so forth. 

Our cones are predominantly responsible enabling us to see colour and deciphering spatial qualities. We have three types of cones and each one has different sensitivity levels to light wavelengths. If someone is colour blind then that basically means they have more cones that allow them to see certain colours (red/green colour blindness is most common) and fewer cones that allow them to see other colours. Ultimately, we are all different and therefore, sight can vary from person to person – if you’ve ever had an argument over the colour of a dress, now you know why! Rods, on the other hand, are photoreceptors that enable us to see things in low light and do not distinguish colours. 

Cones do most of their work during the day then “switch off” at night time when rods become more active. Observing this sensory change can be done with a simple experiment of observing the sun set. Provided there is no interference from artificial light sources, the switching of vision functioning is quite amazing and profound. 

Now some people might be wondering how are the mechanisms of sight related to mental health? Basically, what we see can affect how we think and feel and what we are thinking and feeling can influence what we see and/or how we interpret what we’re seeing. Exploring this connection in a non-threatening activity is a great way to develop self awareness. 

A few weeks ago I performed the sun set experiment myself. The following is a write up of my experience. If any readers decide to the experiment, please write a comment on this blog. I would love to hear others’ experiences! 

Were the eye not of the sun, 

How could we behold the light? 

If God’s might and ours were not as one, 

How could His work enchant our sight?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1810

The notion that human beings have two organs for vision – outer physical eyes that behold light and inner “spiritual eyes” that enchant sight – can be traced back to antiquity. In the above verse, Goethe poetically references this phenomenon with curious questioning of how the functions of these two organs interrelate. A few evenings ago, I conducted a heuristic investigation of my inner and outer vision faculties as “the world” – my world – changed as the light changed at sunset. 

My session commenced at 7:30 pm, under a murky, overcast sky. Seated on a suburban back verandah with paper, pen, and chalk pastels I recorded my experience in visual and written form. In the quietness of the night, I began by looking inward. I was full of angst due to having received some unsettling news in the afternoon. As my restless mind struggled to focus on the task, I wondered how my inner world was influencing my outer vision and vice versa? Focusing my awareness outwards towards an enclosed yard, I noted how unorderly the overground grass appeared and I acknowledge a sensation of entrapment created by the fences and buildings; did my yard always look and feel like this? 

I started sketching to assist the process of focusing on what I could see before me (Fig. 1). Initially, I consciously ignored the brilliance of the colours that were illuminated by the sunlight. What a marvellous instrument the brain is to be able to direct nerves impulses received from the eye to different functions within cortex simply with thoughts! I worked quickly and haphazardly to capture the lines and shapes of the trees, fences, and other objects. Under different circumstances I was quite certain that I would have been more careful and precise with my rendering. As I made marks, I observed being aware of the “reality” of what was before me and the “imaginative” elements from my mind’s eye that I felt an urge to indicate on my paper. For example, I could see elegant tree limbs gently bowing back and forth in a subtle breeze; however, the inner turmoil of my thoughts and emotions encouraged exaggerates gestures and abrupt lines. 

As easily as I had willed my focus to dim colour, I was able to will it back. There were so many shades of green! I felt disappointed by my mediocre collection of pastels; there was no way I could give justice to the spectrum of analogous emerald-toned photons entering my retina. With my attention absorbed by the colours of my outer world, my inner world focus shifted from my woeful thoughts to awe of my visual sensations. 

I looked around hoping to spot a natural prism but this was not my fortune. Then, as I turned my attention to the shadows, I reflected upon Goethe’s adamance that Newton’s colour theory was wrong. I withheld personal judgment and simply appreciated that contemplating the theories of philosophers enriched my current subjective experience. 

I reached for my purple pastel to darken some areas, then paused – was it really purple that I saw in the shadows? Or was I seeing what my mind’s eye expected to see? For a moment I thought it was purple but then I was sure it was black. Black resonated with my emotional tone far better than purple; however, it was also possible that the light had reduced and my cone-mediated vision was switching to rods. I looked more intently in the shadows and for a fleeting moment I saw both purple and black, then another moment later it was definitely black. To solve the puzzle of what was real or imaginary in my vision, I looked to the grass and noticed that I could no longer identify an array of greens: twilight was settling in. I put down my picture, unfinished. 

It wasn’t complete darkness, I could identify shades of grey in between high contrasting dark and light highlights. Much to my surprise, I noticed a bright red flower in my neighbours yard projecting out of the dimness. I could not identify a light source to explain the phenomena. I looked around to see if any greens, blues, or yellows were as strikingly visible as the red. Alas, there was none. Hence, I wandered about the nature of my photon receptors. Perhaps there is something special about red receptors? Or was it just the wiring of my vision? 

Staring into my bleak, monochromatic yard, I noticed the lines of my verandah fence, the branches on the tree, and other lines within my vision were more prominent. The shapes of the leaves on the tree seemed sharper too. If I were able to do a drawing in the dark then it would have been one of lines and shapes. While my inner world knew the colours were still there and I could imagine them with my inner sight, my outer sight organs were defiantly reliant upon an external source of illumination. 

As my vision faded, so did my energy. The rhythm of the day, as dictated by the light, instigated a desire for sleep. In the final moments of my experiment, I reflected once more on the interrelationship between my inner and outer sight. When my awareness of perception was focussed outwards, this influenced my thoughts and feelings in a distracting manner, and when my awareness of my inner thoughts and feelings was focussed inwards, this influenced interpretative perceptions of my sight sensations. 

Satisfied that the experiment was complete, I went inside at 9:30 pm, turned on a light and looked at what I had drawn. It was a terrible drawing, yet oddly “realistic” of the blended experience of what I perceived outwardly and inwardly felt during that particular sunset: it had been a terrible day. I will repeat the experiment another day when I am in a better mood and compare how my sight and perception of my yard differs. 

Figure 1. Drawing conducted during sunset experience 

Bibliography

Tantillo, A. O. (2002). The will to create : Goethe’s philosophy of nature. University Of Pittsburgh Press.

Crone, R. A. (2000). A history of color : the evolution of theories of lights and color. Kluwer Academic.

Keller E.F., Grontkowski C.R. (1983) The Mind’S Eye. In: Harding S., Hintikka M.B. (eds) Discovering Reality. Synthese Library, vol 161. Springer, Dordrecht

Margo, C. E., & Harman, L. E. (2019). Helmholtz’s critique of Goethe’s Theory of Color: more than meets the eye. Survey of Ophthalmology, 64(2), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.survophthal.2018.10.004

Meyertholen, A. (2019). “Zum ersten Mal sah ich ein Bild”: Goethe’s Cognitive Viewing Subject as Scientist and Artist. Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, 55(3), 203–228. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/732087/pdf

Moore, E. K., & Simpson, P. A. (2007). The enlightened eye : Goethe and visual culture. Rodopi.

Serov, N. V. (2019). Conceptualizing the Predicates of the Goethe–Newton Controversy about Color. Automatic Documentation and Mathematical Linguistics, 53(4), 203–215. https://doi.org/10.3103/s0005105519040083

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