Thursday, December 8, 2011

Learning to See Part 7

My great-grand-daughter, Nevayah, (it's one of those New Age made up names designed for rock stars and super models) is one year old; just. What a delight it is to watch a child grow. They learn so fast. Movement, sounds, tastes, reaching out, finding things; ‘milestones’ her mother calls them. I wonder if there is a metric equivalent. The modern mother knows all this. Nothing is left to chance. Each advance is mapped and coordinated like a Photoshop workflow.
‘She’ll start rolling over at 10 weeks and 3 days. Exactly 8 days later she will discover her toes,’ her mother reports. Any delay in progress is a disaster. A step ahead is celebrated as if the child has been selected for Eton or the next Moon landing. A genius is in the making I hear them say: mothers competing for ownership of the brightest and most advanced child.
‘My child is smiling.’
‘Well, mine can hold a spoon.’
‘Can yours say “abomination”? Mine can.’
‘Yeah, well my boy translated the Koran into Japanese yesterday’.
‘But can he pilot a Lear jet?’
And the creche skirmishes continue.

What I have noticed among all this scurrying for child supremacy is that there is a distinct lack of interest in the child’s development in ‘seeing’ past the initial concern that the eyes are functional, they are the colour of at least one of the parents and there is no more than two. Learning to see appears to be taken for granted. Yet outside the speech centre of the brain, the visual cortex is the largest single area of the brain dealing with function other than movement and sight is responsible for 80% of sensory input and learning for a sighted person. For some strange reason we expect it all to be working perfectly from the moment the child sees the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.
 I’m a curious person, so I watch and learn from my great-grand-daughter. Maybe she can teach me a thing or two about learning to see.

She stares; intently, wide-eyed, glaringly, as if everything is new: as it is. As each object, place and face comes into view she takes in what she sees and places it carefully into her memory. Objects become familiar, recognizable, and repeatable. She begins to search, looking for things she knows exist in her memory. She connects those visions with places and experiences. Relationships are formed. She learns to see in conjunction with her other senses. She learns to know where objects will be and what they mean. She learns to associate the real with the symbol. A photo on the wall, a representation of an animal in a story book, a reflection in the mirror, another human, someone she knows: herself.

The process is slow at first, blurred slightly by the physical restraints and then by the experiential limitations of a child. Her eyes dart back and forth across the vista in a never-ending search for meaning. When a connection is made she reacts. A smile, a puzzled expression, a sign of fear, a moment of hesitation, joy, anticipation, excitement. She learns that seeing is a way of finding out. She learns to enjoy the experience. Eye contact between other humans is rewarding to her. Seeing becomes rewarding.

You and I know where this is going, of course. I have grand children and children of my own who have all been along this path. They learn to see and recognize shapes and colours. They establish preferences and partialities for certain objects and people. They learn to associate words with objects and they learn to speak those words. They learn to read. They learn their language; to put ideas into words and describe what they see. At the root of all of this learning is the sense of sight. A child without sight learns all of this by an entirely different process and the other senses must fill in the gaps where lack of vision leaves the learning spaces void of stimulus.

As this learning process continues the child learns to focus. In a somewhat confusing and over-stimulating visual world, the child must learn to isolate those things which are important and ignore those things which are unimportant. We teach a child to concentrate their attention.
‘Watch to the front’, the teacher says.
‘Keep your eyes on the traffic’, warns the parent.
‘Look at me’, the sibling demands.
‘Stop looking at that’, you will hear the crier call.
We learn to be selective in our vision. That’s a very important skill for us all. Its necessary for our survival.

As we grow and develop we begin a new process of selection based not on visual isolation but one of cognitive isolation where our already existing learning begins to select only those things which we find relevant at the time. This selection process is influenced by our memory, understanding, beliefs, customs and knowledge. In a sense, our vision seems to narrow. We no longer see with the eyes of a child but of an adult. Our visual input is the same but our 'vision' narrows.

This new vision can blind us. We drive without noticing where we are. We don’t recognise people we know. We ‘don’t see the nose on [our] face’ as my mother used to say. We read and re-read the same lines in a book. Something seems to appear out of nowhere. ‘It’s been there all the time’ I hear Christine say. How did I not see it? It’s a peculiar phenomenon that is characteristic of us all.

And what of the photograph?

We give the image a passing glance. It doesn't 'interest' us so we move on. We may ponder long enough to notice something.
'Nice flower'.
'I've been there'.
'Don't go much on the dress she's wearing'

We might consider the image in our own light.

'$4m for that! My kid could do better'

We may have some knowledge which we can apply.
'Interesting PoV' the budding photographer observes.
'That horizon could be a little higher.'
'Nice and sharp!'
Were not these people’s vision blurred by their own experiences, knowledge, biases and expectations? Did they take the opportunity, as a child might, to seek new experiences, to expand on what they already knew, to 'see' as other might, to search the frame for detail, clues, connections.
The photographer presents us with a view of the world, neatly packaged withing a frame. That particular view is is unique. It has never been seen in quite that way and from that point in time before. The photographer sees something worth recording, worth sharing, worth expressing in his/her own particular way. This is the visual fingerprint of that particular place at that particular time by just one person. And how do we respond? 'Nice colour (it'll match my curtains)'.

The adult often sees and endeavours to eliminate what they don’t understand, comprehend or believe. We resist the relationships for fear of misunderstanding them. We ignore the symbolism for fear of stimulating our own feelings. A dead flower is a dead flower and not a symbol of loss or mourning. A fallen petal cannot be a moment of sadness. A white vase doesn’t show us purity of form: its just a vase. Something seemingly out of place is a mistake and needs to be corrected.

If we learn to see as the child does, we open a new world to our vision and add to our own experiences. We learn about people and places. We see the connections and relationships. We share in a world as no other generation has ever done before. Don't let the world pass you by. Stop for a while and ponder. Learn to see as others do.