See, Perceiving, VisionsI’m about halfway through Phantoms In the Brain, by V. S. Ramachandran, MD, PhD and Sandra Blakeslee. The early parts of the book are about phantom limbs and associated pain and how something as simple as the use of a mirror can trick the brain into turning off the pain, at least while the mirror is there.

I am in the part now about vision. There are over 30 parts of the brain that enable us to see. Alter any part in that system and vision goes awry. An artist has a stroke so slight that he doesn’t know it happened till he gets home and everything, including his paintings, are a stark black and white. Other persons cease to “see” in the left or right visual fields but are still able to perceive. When asked whether an object is horizontal or vertical, they can accurately say even though they cannot see the object and don’t know how they know. Some have their blind spot increased and miss fairly good sized chunks of the visual field. But the brain fills in the blanks. There are perceptual and conceptual parts to vision. One very interesting condition is called Charles Bonnet Syndrome in which persons with visual impairment hallucinate. One woman sees cartoons, another man sees all sorts of things including a monkey sitting on Ramachandran’s lap, but is able to intuit that the monkey is not real. James Thurber, who lost vision in one eye as a child in an accident, eventually lost the vision in his other eye but continued to “see” with the syndrome, and it most likely had an effect on his stories and cartoons. Contrary to seeing it as a handicap, some persons actually enjoy it and see it as a gift.  Most people don’t mention that they have visual hallucinations because as a culture, the west does not see that as a gift, but a problem or an illness that must be medicated.  Parts of the visual system recognize the “what” while others recognize movement as a steady flow (one woman lost that ability and now sees movement as a sort of strobe effect and cannot cross streets because she can’t tell exactly where something is), other parts add color, texture, etc.

What is amazing is the system that integrates all this and does it in real time. It also fills in the blanks. Cartoonists and other graphic artists rely on this. A few lines can enable you to see or visualize an entire picture. You can also see part of the face of a friend looking around a corner and see and recognize the whole friend. What is also amazing is that the actual field of vision that is in focus in about the size of your thumb nail when you hold your hand out from you. When we get anxious, we get tunnel vision even more. It is part of who we are to look for patterns and to fill in blanks with what we think should be there and base it on our mental map of the world and our life experiences. Sometimes that works well and sometimes works very badly. The authors say that it is almost like there are a lot of selves in us, most of whom we are not even aware, that unconsciously put all the pieces together that we act upon. I think that is a basis of Bayesian logic which seems to be at least one of the bases of the flow state. And when you become conscious that you are in a flow state, you lose that state. This seems to me to be in keeping with the Buddhist tradition of there being no self. You gain enlightenment when you realize that and let go and be.