A little over a decade ago, I wrote my fourth novel under the working title, Painter – this would turn out to be my first published book, Do Sparrows Eat Butterflies? The core story is a complex, and often traumatic, rebirth of a jaded, near-alcoholic sea-view artist. Swimming under the surface, though, are meditations on love, life, family and the bitter illusion that is certainty.
I’ve been re-reading The Drunkards Walk by Leonard Mlodinow – an overview of how randomness rules our lives far, far more than our conceit and arrogance would have us believe. In his book, Mlodinow displays mastery in bringing complex mathematics, statistics and science into easily understood narrative. As a scientist, I sometimes find myself longing for more of the technical details, but that’s just me – and I heartily recommend the book to anyone who believes the chances of landing a heads in a straight coin toss is 50%.
As I muse on what I’m reading, and what much of my story-telling centres around, I was struck by this passage, covering some research I’d seen before:
… Human perception, Faraday recognized is not a direct consequence of reality but rather an act of imagination.
Perception requires imagination because the data people encounter in their lives are never complete and always equivocal. For example, most people consider evidence of an event one can obtain is to see it with their own eyes, and in a court of law little is held in more esteem than eyewitness testimony. Yet if you asked to display for a court a video of the same quality as the unprocessed data captured on the retina of a human eye, the judge might wonder what you were trying to put over. For one thing, the view will have a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina. Moreover, the only part of our field of vision with good resolution is a narrow area of about 1 degree of visual angle around the retina’s center, an area the width of our thumb as it looks when held at arm’s length. Outside that region, resolution drops off sharply. To compensate, we constantly move our eyes to bring the sharper region to bear on different portions of the scene we wish to observe. And so the pattern of raw data sent to the brain is a shaky, badly pixilated picture with a hole in it. Fortunately the brain processes the data, combining the input from bot h eyes, filling in gaps on the assumption that the visual properties of neighboring locations are similar and interpolating. The results – at least until age, injury, disease, or an excess of mai tais takes its toll – it a happy human being suffering from the compelling illusion that his or her vision is sharp and clear.
We also use our imagination and take shortcuts to fill gaps in patterns of non visual data. As with visual input, we draw conclusions and make judgements based on uncertain and incomplete information, and we conclude, when we are done analyzing the patterns, that our “picture” is clear and accurate. But is it?
And the answer, of course, is no.
Well, not just no, but completely, totally, utterly, indubitably NO.
Stop for a moment though. Think of everyone who ever presents an either/or, black/white, black/white absolutist statement to you
[it shouldn’t be hard, it happens ALL the time]
think of the media’s talking heads, the pontificating boor in your local bar. Think of their passion, commitment and rock-solid belief that they know what they’re talking about and it is proven.
They’re imagining it.
You’re imagining it.
And when you realize that every certainty you have is a function of imagination based on incomplete data, you suddenly realize how you have it within you to change both the data set and what it means to you.
Think about that.
Change both the data set and what it means to you.
You’re not stuck in a dead-end job. You’re allowing incomplete data to feed your imagination. You’re the one who is making the job dead-end. It’s how you’re imagining it to be.
Read over the quoted section above again.
we constantly move our eyes to bring the sharper region to bear on different portions of the scene we wish to observe
You can look at other things.
You can stop assuming that what you’ve seen stays the same.
These are the tricks we artists teach ourselves as we delve into our muse and learn our craft. We artists imagine alternate realities. And once again, I’m left feeling that we artists have more to teach the world than the world allows into its certainty.
Change the data you’re paying attention to, or change what you imagine it means.
There is liberation in letting your next self loose.