SEEING begins for us when an integrated, modulated and physiologically adjusted flow of nerve signals reaches the part of our brain called the visual cortex.
Here, signals from millions of tiny cells in our two eyes are incorporated to become “sight”. The cells in our eyes — “rods” that sift signals from the shadows, and “cones” that fill in the colours — are triggered by electromagnetic energy focused onto them by a flexible lens at the front of each of our eyes. But, even at the level of the retina, our cells suppress or amplify each others’ responses, helping us, for example, to see edges more clearly and switch our attention to things that are in motion.
Almost all of the light we see originates in the broad, sustaining stream of energy that pours from the Sun, taking about eight minutes and 20 seconds to get here. It’s rich mix, ranging from gamma rays, with a wavelength of down to one one-hundredth of a nanometre, to radiowaves with wavelengths of up to 30 kilometres.
It is only a sliver of this rich flood of sustaining energy — the bit with wavelengths of 390 to 750 nanometres (billionths of a metre) — that light up our eyes. It’s our “visible window”. Fire and light-bulbs also emit some of their energy in this little band of wavelengths.
The energy that arrives at our eyes has ricocheted off the things we “see” in different ways and, depending on the wavelengths that are absorbed, scattered or reflected by their surfaces, we experience colours. Some colours are “pure” — produced by a narrow wavelengths band; others depend on several bands overlapping. But they only turn into “colour” inside our heads. Having two eyes helps us judge distances because, even though we only occasionally see double, the views from both eyes get “compared” in the brain. And in our dreams, we “see” without any incoming light at all.
Visual impairment can happen anywhere along the pathways that process the signals but the system is remarkably robust and adaptive. It learns, for example, to stifle a constant, continuous stimulus because it seems to lack meaning. This makes us susceptible to “white-outs”. And we get fooled by illusions.
But our visual system’s capacities to adapt and learn mean that we can train ourselves past most of the problems we run into. If you start wearing lenses that turn your visual world upside down, for example, you’ll “see” things “the right way up” again after a few days. And, when you take the lenses off, things will look inverted at first but, in only a couple of days, they’ll turn “right-side-up” again.
That is because the whole visual system is entangled in various, adaptive ways with all of our other sensory systems, our memories and emotions. And the whole network is managed by an “attentive” system that’s part reflexive and part conscious and deliberate. Just as colours are known to affect things ranging from our “mood” to the way we taste foods, our attitudes and values can manage the dimensions of experience we attend to.
All of our senses interact with each other — sight, sound, smell, motion, balance and orientation, taste, temperature, time, appetite and touch — as well as with our memories and emotions and sense of self so that we move through the world on a sort of personalised, multi-dimensional, sensory magic carpet… we are physiologically “wired” to respond to and live by these meaningful, multi-channel symphonies of discovery.
It’s pure nonsense to say that “beauty’s in the eye of the beholder”: the fossil record amply assures us that beauty was all around the Earth long before anyone evolved to apprehend it: we are physiologically “wired” for aesthetic sensitivity.
And it’s reasonable to assume that aesthetic sensivity has a role to play in sustaining our good health. We can certainly make our experience of life a whole lot better — or worse — by the way we attune ourselves to some of the sensory symphonies that surround us.
We don’t NEED, for example, to create urban public spaces that are chunked too closely about with drab, threatening architecture then fill them with grime and deranging cacophonies of sound that jar our senses and mock our humanity. And they don’t need to stink. “Pollution” is NOT just about toxic chemicals, industrial emissions and carbon dioxide; it’s not just carcinogens in the groundwater. It includes the jarring, judgement-impairing psychic assault of unnecessary ugliness, noise and interminable bright lights.
We don’t NEED the sensory devastation of exploitative entertainment, tedious food, pornography and loud noise — stimuli like these have military uses, for heaven’s sake: as torture techniques. We don’t NEED to drown out as much of our sensory capacity as possible in order to stay reasonably sane in the midst of environments that most wildlife sensibly flees.
The need to level out from stresses like these is a health issue. The symptoms are physiological. But the problem is cultural. And the solution is cultural.
It is as easy as giving beauty free access to our sensory systems, our emotional lives and our memories. You and I… we all are “wired” to receive it. We have learned, or been taught, to suppress it.
We need to be able to see stars occasionally, we need to hear flowing streams and bird song. We need quiet and we need beauty. We need balance.
The beauty of even a single blade of grass or a passing cloud is accessible to us. We just have to take the time… and look.
The smells of a rose, of baking bread, of the sea, of freshly-picked basil, of autumn leaves and lavender and the soil after rain… these can rush through the conduits of our senses to radiate joy within our emotional marrow.
There are musical phrases, voices, the sounds of wind in the trees, of waves on a shore, the calls of birds and coyotes, and rhythms of water on stone or hooves on grass… that charge our energies and clear our minds. And silence will speak to us, if we can find it.
There are textures — the cool smoothness of a wet river stone, the give of creaking sand, the softness of a flower-head, the airy flex of a feather, the crispness of a tree-fresh apple, the moist, warm pliability of summer soil, the tickling brittleness of autumn leaves — that yearn to wrap us up in delight. Windy waves across fields of grain, towering mounds of summer cloud, the flight of a bird, the muttering dance of raindrops, … countless fleeting experiences are all about us, waiting to catch our glance.
As we make a point of going to places that enchant us, and take the time to let them blossom in our memories, they reach into our moral and intellectual selves and begin smoothing out the tangles bedevilling our present.
As we will change, the world around us will change: the “world”, after all, is a welter of energies, of which we can directly experience only a few slender samplings.
We are wired to choose well… to make our energies into harmonies, and turn our world into wonder.
…and there’s my thought for this Canada’s Thanksgiving Weekend.