In Alan Jacobs’ latest newsletter, he tells a story of literally stumbling into the Pantheon and San Lorenzo in Lucina while wandering around Rome. (It’s so delicious to think about actually being able to flaneur and wander around a foreign city again one day.) Alan points out how different it felt to happen upon them by chance vs. actively seeking them out.
“Surprise is the great enabler of seeing,” Alan writes.
He points to a passage in Walker Percy’s essay, “The Loss of the Creature” (collected in The Message in the Bottle) in which Percy explores how education and classification systems blind us, essentially, to the reality of things we’re trying to see. For example, a man taking a trip to see the Grand Canyon:
Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon under these circumstances and see it for what it is — as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer the thing…. it is rather that which has already been formulated—by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.
In another newsletter that hit my inbox this morning, Oliver Burkeman posted an excerpt from his forthcoming Four Thousand Weeks, about his problem of trying to “live in the moment” while trying to take in the Northern Lights.
The more Burkeman tried to take them in and be in the moment, the more he failed. In fact, he got so far away from being in the moment by trying to be in the moment that he had a thought that still makes him squirm: “Oh, I found myself thinking, they look like one of those screensavers.”
The attempt to “be here now” feels not so much relaxing as rather strenuous – and it turns out that trying to have the most intense possible present-moment experience is a surefire way to fail. […] To try to live in the moment implies that you’re somehow separate from “the moment,” and thus in a position to either succeed or fail at living in it.
Part of the problem is that the brain only really registers what it doesn’t expect to see.
When we think of seeing, we imagine the eyes sending a bunch of data to the brain and then the brain interpreting all that data.
“It turns out, however, that the brain does not work like this at all,” Carlo Rovelli writes in Helgoland. “It functions, in fact, in an opposite way. Many, if not most, of the signals do not travel from the eyes to the brain; they go the other way, from the brain to the eyes.”
What happens is that the brain expects to see something, on the basis of what it knows and has previously occurred. The brain elaborates an image of what it predicts the eyes should see. This information is conveyed from the brain to the eyes, through intermediate states. If a discrepancy is revealed between what the brain expects and the light arriving into the eyes, only then do the neural circuits send signals toward the brain. So images from around us do not travel from the eyes to the brain—only news of discrepancies regarding what the brain expects do.
This, Rovelli points out, is actually a very efficient way of functioning: no need to worry the brain with what it already knows is there.
The implications for the relationship between what we see and the world, however, are remarkable. When we look around ourselves, we are not truly “observing”: we are instead dreaming of an image of the world based on what we know (including bias and misconception) and unconsciously scrutinizing the world to reveal any discrepancies, which, if necessary, we will try to correct.
Surprising the brain, however, is almost impossible to plan or strategize! You can’t really will surprise, you can only put yourself in situations where you have a better chance of being surprised.
It’s easy to surprise your brain by looking around a foreign country, but much harder to do in your everyday environment. (In Rob Walker’s excellent The Art of Noticing, he suggests trying to be a tourist in your own town, and to “Spot Something New Every Day.”)
An artist makes the ordinary extraordinary, but if we only really register what we aren’t expecting to see, a great part of the artist’s job is to try to estrange his mind from the ordinary things he’s trying to see.
But seeing with fresh eyes is never a simple task.
I suppose all one can really do is keep your eyes peeled.