Embodied Vision, Embodied Thought

by Mark G. Taber

From Proximity Magazine Issue No. 8, pp. 16–17, Winter 2010

It’s typical to assume vision is defined entirely by the eyes discounting the contribution of the rest of the body. This assumption may be the product of a categorical division of the body which relies on a mind-body dualism that also locates cognition solely within brain processes. All of these assumptions impact our approach to art and should be carefully considered. We can approach art with an alternative set of ideas that could lead to fresh insights.

We see and even think with our entire body. In other words, we are embodied perceivers and embodied thinkers, as recent neuroscience has been discovering. Our body is closely interlocked within a structured environment. Our perceiving bodies are constantly being constrained and supported by the feedback received from their surroundings and we rely on this to maintain a stable mental state, including a steady gaze. Dreams are unrealistic because the dreaming body is in a state of self-induced paralysis. While confined to bed, we do not receive any external feedback commensurate with the content of the dream, with the result that theses thoughts do not exhibit the steadiness of waking life. We depend on close-coupled interaction with our environment for lucid thinking.

Vision is a skill. We learn from a very early age how to navigate perceptual feedback from the world. These skills become such habits that we forget they have been acquired. Finite bodies can detect a very limited amount of information at any given time; e.g., within our field of view, we have a tiny focal point outside of which all else is indistinct. “Change blindness” experiments and magic acts show us that we use our focal point in a habitual manner. (Change blindness is a phenomenon in visual perception wherein significant changes can occur in full view and yet not be noticed). If we change our vision habits, we can transform our reaction to change blindness tests and magic acts. Moreover, blindsight shows us how the brain uses the whole body to see the world. (Blindsight is a phenomenon in which people who are genuinely blind display significant responses to visual stimuli or are even able to predict aspects of a visual stimulus, such as location.) We are surprised by blindsight because it violates the boundaries of our conventional category of vision.

Once we realize how little we see with our eyes alone, how much this depends on our skill set, and recognize that the brain uses touch and the entire body as a way to see, then we can begin to think of looking as a tactile sense dependant on active engagement with the environment.

Sculpture is a touch-dependent medium. We haven’t discovered everything a three dimensional artwork has to offer until we have touched it. Children must be trained not to carry out this natural desire. Museums have instituted so called “touch-tour programs” for the blind. Fingertips and eyes work together, to utilize one without the other is constraining. When we look at a painting we walk around in front of it, moving closer or further away. Many paintings may look dramatically different depending on viewing position, such as Pointillist works, those using Ben-Day patterns or loose brushwork. This means there is no single canonical viewpoint for a painting. A photographic reproduction does not change this relationship; it only deprives us of much information extant in the original. Realist paintings with a single focal point can be perceived with an enhanced sense of illusionary depth by viewing them with one eye through a peep hole. By reducing binocular vision to monocular and restricting the location of the body relative to the work, we reduce the amount of perceptual information coming from different parts of the body that would reveal the painting to be flat. We become a single floating, bodiless eyeball.

Language is rich with embodied metaphors. For example, “I’m feeling up” locates “up” relative to the body. Our most abstract thoughts are made comprehensible by imagining them in terms of the body.

These critiques substantiate the necessity for what can be called “the embodied perceiver approach,” demonstrating that in involvement with art the active presence of our body is unavoidable, both physically and metaphorically. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many problems with visual art are at root problems with the body. The embodied thinker approach is difficult because it must account for a broad range of concerns. In contrast, the disembodied mind approach has been easily able to discount the body, treating the world as a place that can be looked at from the outside. By manipulating our exterior environment, we can enhance or diminish, as the case may be, our ability to see and to think. Enhancement is thus relative — relative to the body. Embodied artists are at their best when their works help our whole body think.