What Do You See?
I have often wondered how infants perceive the visual world. It is impossible to go back and perceive the world as we once did. When everything was brand new, that very first time.
Assuming no visual impairments, we view the world in a stable visual field of objects that are perhaps partly occluding others. We perceive depth and shadows cast by objects, colors and texture.
Case in point — I am composing this post on my laptop. I glance at a purple exercise ball which is partly obscured by my laptop screen, roughly three feet behind it. The ball is partly obscuring the bed behind it. There are other objects in my peripheral vision as I hold my gaze wide. I pause and make a mental note to turn off my analytical mind and view objects as they really are: pure, true and bare-naked.
“Why?” you might ask.
Humor me and follow along. I have to confess there are several remarkable truths that I take for granted. In the spirit of experiential self paying mindful visual attention, I will walk you through some of these truths. You may even follow along and conduct the following experiments on your own.
What is remarkable is the view is a single, open and unified field of view! No matter how I position both my eyes, I cannot see the bridge of my eye glasses. There are no left and right partitions. Not even a thin line of separation in the middle. If I squint really hard, I can see a portion of my nose. If I point my index finger and touch the rim of my glasses and squint hard, still no split.
I now switch my attention to the periphery of this view. I can see the rims of my eye glasses. If I continue to hold my gaze wide, I can see past the rims. There are objects in the background. But no matter how hard I try to constrain this field into a physical boundary, I fail miserably. Subjectively, I must therefore conclude it is a vast open space without a boundary.
I am awake. What will make this field of view disappear instantly? Or make it reappear instantly? I just have to shut or open both my eyelids!
It is true that when our eyes encounter extremely graphic imagery, we reflexively shut our eyes to make them disappear. Precisely when our minds recoil with aversion or fear generated by them.
What if our eyes are already shut and our mind is dispensing graphic imagery? It’s a nightmare! Pun aside, dreams are an interesting conundrum. If we have a nightmare, chances are we may sit upright and open our eyes, relieved that it was just a bad dream. Subjectively, there is no difference between these states really. Both are happening in our minds. But we all seem to possess this magical power of making things disappear or appear at our beck and call.
Shifting Focus, Tracing Locus
Growing up in Bangaluru in the early eighties, I can’t recall there being many dull moments. This was before we had a television, a refrigerator, or even a phone in our home. They were considered a luxury availed by only a few, not us.
Sunday afternoon was compulsory nap time. As I lay in bed, I amused myself by playing this game. We had a ceiling fan, almost identical to the one shown in the picture. It was a rusty old fan with rivets on three metallic blades, but a different color. Chipped paint, layers of dust stuck on the blades all seem very apt for what I am about to describe — called the “shifting focus, tracing locus” experiment.
As an aside, the knob for adjusting the fan speed was permanently set to “low” and kids were not allowed to mess with the knob. Conveniently, experiments work very well with lower fan speeds.
If I fixated on one blade and followed it’s circular, slightly wobbly trajectory, I could continually pay attention, but it required my eyeballs to follow the blade as it spun. The foreground was that blade on which my eyes were locked in. It was at rest relative to my eyes. In the background was a fairly dull monotonous ceiling except for a spot where the paint was chipped. It appeared to spin in the opposite direction to the fan’s clockwise rotation. Once locked in, my eyes would scan the blade from it’s outer edge moving along the blade toward the rivet. As they approached closer the axis of the fan, the gaze still fixed on that blade, I could feel my eyeballs rotate faster since they had to keep up with the increased speed. I set myself “ten rotations fixed on the rivet” to “win” this game.
There is an inconvenient fact that conspires to make this game interesting — the blinking of the eyelids! If I blinked and lost track of the blade I was watching, that would amount to falling off the metaphorical saddle. That meant starting all over. I was (and perhaps still am) obsessive compulsive and had to pick the same blade every time. Otherwise it would amount to cheating.
I always picked the same blade, one which had a dried up blood stain, probably from a head on collision with a mosquito. I had noticed on several prior occasions this stain coincided with the chipped paint on the ceiling that formed a reference point. When I locked my eyelids on the reference point, sooner or later the blade with mosquito stain (whose locus is a circle) would arrive and coincide with it. That would be an impeccable timing to jump back on that saddle!
When I had my eyes locked in on a fixed window around the reference point on the ceiling, the blades would enter that window momentarily only to disappear quickly. This shift in focus gave my eyes a much needed break, if only for a brief moment before I resumed the game.
Focusing on the rivet while the blade spins is one perspective. Focusing on the ceiling reference point as the fan blades arrive and disappear is another. Both perspectives are equally valid even though they appear very different. They appear on the same stage of our open and aware consciousness.
Furu ike ya
mizu no oto
A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps
— Translated by Curtis Hidden Page
The world is bare-naked and true. My mind is capable of being obscured by cobwebs of doubt, and carried away by thoughts. Rattled by aversion, fear and anger and tinged by sense pleasures. That moment I when clearly notice the frog leap into the pond, plop! is worth many years I spend lost in thought.
- On having no head — Douglas Harding