A super article in the New Scientist explains – as artists have intuited down the centuries – that the brain works to a different set of rules than the real world.
We have misread shadows and mirrors from Velazquez Rokeby Venus to Bond’s Scaramanga but most of the time we get it right. I’m going to look up Patrick Cavanagh of Paris Descartes University’s work, but in essence the visual tricks of Dali and Escher and the deeper emotional connection made by a Monet are no accidents.
As the New Scientist summarises ‘You can’t do a proper analysis of all the laws of physics in in the 10th of a second it takes your visual system to form an image so we evolved a simple set of rules that can be computed rapidly without requiring a large proportion of the brain.’ This also means it can be tricked.
I think our visual system may be like our ‘ethical system’. We have evolved a simple, but very powerful set of rules constantly improved by experience through our Bayesian brains. However like an untrained artistic eye if we don’t examine and assess our moral judgements we may not learn and improve and thus fall short of a virtuous and fulfilled life. We can all draw an object but very few can render it perfectly or change the way others see it. Our ‘Ethical eye’ although primarily instinctive is worth training I believe.
I also think the odd checklist helps. I read something a few months back about the astonishing improvements in surgical outcomes achieved by simply running through a checklist – not least checking “have I left any surgical instruments in the person”. Pilots have known it for years, rudders – check, instruments – check, honesty – check, courage – check.
An Aristotelian list is not a bad checklist:
11 is a lot to remember, but the good thing of course is I don’t have to. Simply follow my gut (it’s all simplified, instinctive and instantly available in there) and periodically assess and train the Bayesian brain.
Much easier than painting a Monet.