Looking for Hollow Faces

A philosophical opinion piece called ‘Do Thrifty Minds Make Better Brains?’ by Andy Clark, a professor of logic and metaphysics at Edinburgh, relates how our thrifty minds conserve energy and activity by being ‘engines of prediction’. He draws on research in neuroscience to argue that we amass a bank of stored images that replace (and sometimes cancel out) new sensory data about phenomena we’ve seen before. The mind uses its existing knowledge to avoid having to process everything that confronts us as though new; instead, the brain registers anomalies from the expectations it has created: ‘What is marked and passed forward in the brain’s flow of processing are the divergences from predicted states: divergences that may be used to demand more information at those very specific points, or to guide remedial action.’

Even at this point, Clark’s argument rings many literary bells for me (e.g. George Eliot (such as the squirrel’s heart-beat line I’ve mentioned before); or T.S. Eliot’s ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’, given an explicitly Christian reading here—there are religious ideas lurking near these arguments). Clark also alludes to possible literary applications when he meditates on the idea that perception and imagination are linked activities:

[P]erception (at least of this stripe) now looks to be deeply linked to something not unlike imagination. For insofar as a creature can indeed predict its own sensory inputs from the “top down,” [i.e. is knowledge-driven] such a creature is well positioned to engage in familiar (though perhaps otherwise deeply puzzling) activities like dreaming and some kind of free-floating imagining. These would occur when the constraining sensory input is switched off, by closing down the sensors, leaving the system free to be driven purely from the top down. We should not suppose that all creatures deploying this strategy can engage in the kinds of self-conscious deliberate imagining that we do. Self-conscious deliberate imagining may well require substantial additional innovations, like the use of language as a means of self-cuing. But where we find perception working in this way, we may expect an interior mental life of a fairly rich stripe, replete with dreams and free-floating episodes of mental imagery.

Clark uses the example of the hollow-face illusion, which is much more easily appreciated by watching the video attached to his article than by explanation. In essence, Clark takes this famous illusion (it turned up in the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures this year, with Einstein’s head instead of Chaplin’s) as a good example of how the mind’s activity affects our perception: we always see the rounded face because the idea of a hollow face is so foreign to us that we reject the incoming sensory data, and plump for a fictional, illusory perception.

The article doesn’t actually specify any view about what literature or the arts involve, but I do find a set of productively disagreeable implications (which I stress are not made in the article) that could grow out of it. If you were to define an artist as someone with ‘an interior mental life of a fairly rich stripe, replete with dreams and free-floating episodes of mental imagery’, in short someone wildly imaginative, then you might be led to think that arty types love to play with fictions and deal with counter-factuals. In this view the artist toys with reality and lets the mind run free. Clark’s line about ‘use of language as a means of self-cuing’ could imply that poetry is a literary form that encourages the mind to engage in such creative, associative play. The creative mind makes its own false rounded faces and indulges its fantasties.

This sounds reasonable enough, and there may be something in it. But I also disagree that this provides anything like an approximation of what artistic contemplation and creation may accomplish. For a start, this state only occurs when ‘the constraining sensory input is switched off, by closing down the sensors’, so you can forget any naturalistic observation, and this also shuts down any social engagement in the relevant art: Clark refers elsewhere to how our imagination stores prejudices. In fact, I think this model of artistic creation as unplugged from reality and left to engage in play is positively immoral because it would define artistic creation as the reorganization of false certainties, severed from truth, and unwilling to participate in the world.

When I watch the hollow-face illusion, I try to convince my mind to discard its illusion and to see the hollow face that’s really there. I do this in vain– but I don’t want to settle for the illusion. Similarly, I would always pick the blue pill in the world of the Matrix. Likewise, many great artists are intensely curious and inquisitive people who also don’t want to accept fictions, but want to use their imagination to re-route the mind so that it can see what’s there more clearly. There are many ways to try to see the hollow face, such as to observe it as closely as possible (realism), or to realize that the mask you see has a deeper meaning, i.e. a hollow face (symbolism).

I’ve been reading Wallace Stevens and his early critics recently, and there is a great deal of pertinent material to draw on here. Stevens has been seen as the ‘poet of consciousness’ par excellence. Here is verse about how a singer who ‘sang beyond the genius of the sea’ fashions her world through her singing:

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. (The Idea of Order at Key West)

The singer’s voice creates her world, parallel to the world as it is, but still a beautiful fiction. The actual sea is as inaccessible as the hollow face. Stevens’ poem may seem to go against my argument, because he explores the impossibility of seeing or singing the sea as it is. But his poetry can be read as an exploration of how we reach and deal with this limitations, as human beings. He writes elsewhere that ‘I thought we had reached a point at which we could no longer believe in anything unless we recognized that it was a fiction [….] there are fictions that are extensions of reality [….] Heaven is an extension of reality’ (letter to Henry Church, 8 December 1942) and that ‘[poetic] truth is an agreement with reality, brought about by the imagination of a man strongly disposed to be influenced by his imagination, which he believes, for a time, to be true’ (‘Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’). These are the serious thoughts of a man engaged in the world, not someone withdrawing to a domain of happy fancy.

For Stevens here the imagination is an instrument used to reach towards truth once we know that it is unreachable: there are necessary fictions. There is mystery on the land and in the seas. In his poetry Stevens uses language to test out these limitations, and to discover the point where the mind stops us from seeing more clearly. I doubt Stevens could have seen the hollow face either, but his poetry doesn’t just mess around with versions of the illusory rounded face either—his poetry is not divorced from the understanding, despite Yvor Winters’ view that Stevens gives us ‘the most perfect laboratory of hedonism to be found in literature [….] his ideas have remained essentially unchanged for more than a quarter of a century’. His poetry, and other poetry, is a different type of laboratory: once conducting advanced experiments in how we build our sense of reality, aware that any such investigations cannot ignore the fallibility of the investigator. The imagination can do more than juggle prejudices and preconceptions into new forms: it can help us to dabble in reality and try to see hollow faces.


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