Friday, May 20, 2016

Creativity is Found Between What We Think We See, and What We Think We Know





Unflattening – Nick Sousanis (2015)

            What a great idea this book is.  Nick Sousanis has created a comic book about perception and the possibilities inherent in the confluence of image and text that serves as his graduate dissertation.  It is an amazing book.  I only wish I had read it when I was 20 years younger for it would have guided me to new avenues of cognitive exploration.  As it stands, much of the material and the conclusions found within are topics and ideas that I have myself grappled with as I have read more and more on the topics of cognition, identity, creativity, and the nature of perceived reality.
            Sousanis’ main theme is that of perception.  He begins by discussing the classic science fiction story “Flatland” (reviewed by yours truly here).  This story describes the residents of a two-dimensional world, and specifically one resident, a Square, who is visited by a three-dimensional being, a Sphere.  This experience alters the frame of reference for the two-dimensional being who has to expand his mind to understand that the way he and others of his world view their existence and the world around them is but one aspect of the full reality available.  Not only does the Square visit a three-dimensional world, full of spheres, cubes, and pyramids, but he is also shown a one-dimensional world, where all that exists is a solitary Point who imagines himself to be all that can and does exist.  The Point dismisses the reality of his visitors because his perception does not allow for their existence.  The same happens in reverse when the Square notes to the Sphere that if there are three-dimensional beings, then by extrapolation there must be four-dimensional beings.  Of course the Sphere finds this patently impossible, due to his means of perception.
            Sousanis uses this example to help explain how humans are a sum total of all their experiences, leading us to perceive the world as an absolute thing, one that normally does not allow for any differences of viewpoint, and a world in which anything that lies outside of the accepted parameters of “reality” must by its very nature, not exist at all.  Sousanis uses images and text, the makings of comic books, to show that absolutely nothing that we perceive is inherently what we perceive.  For example, what one sees with their right eye is different in every way from what one sees with their left eye.  The image we imagine we are seeing is not reality, but a combination and blurring in our minds of the signals being sent by the two eyes. This ability to see things from two different angles at the same time is a property of animals that have binocular vision, such as humans, eagles, dogs, etc.  Basically, any animal that needs to hunt, to pinpoint spatial locations, has vision that allows them to see and understand perspective.
            It is very difficult for us to step outside of our experience and understand how other creatures experience reality.  Sousanis uses the example of a dog’s sense of smell.  Dogs have the ability to not only detect smells, but they use those smells to differentiate temporal qualities among many other awesome skills.  For example, these differences in smell potency can inform an animal like a dog about whether the squirrels were in this tree this morning, last week, or ten minutes ago.  Their scent world is so much richer than we humans could ever imagine much less experience.
            Sousanis goes on to discuss the fractal nature of reality as it relates to experience and knowledge and the way in which drawing/image making is a sensory tool much more than a tool for exact documentation.  He explores how the combination of art and text can provide explicit and implied meaning, how the opening of the mind to new forms of perception can help create new connections between old ideas and concepts already in our heads, and how drawing and text help engage our minds simultaneously, helping us to have an exponentially more varied and meaningful experience.  He speaks of the importance of imagination.

“Imagination lets us exceed our inevitably limited point of view to find perspectives not in existence or dimensions not yet accessible.” – Nick Sousanis

We do not see/experience images as a whole totality.  Our eyes dart back and forth over different parts, and our imagination fills in the gaps to create the full image in our minds.  This is a never-ending process.  Humans are engaged in it at all points in their life.  Our very eyes, those magnificent organs, can only truly focus clearly on a very small area of whatever we are looking at.  What we think we see clearly is nothing more than an approximation in our minds.  We live our lives mostly on auto-pilot, and this is a good thing, for if we had to re-learn every task and skill every time we needed to do them (such as tying a shoelace, or walking, or driving) we would never accomplish anything.  However, living in this auto-pilot mode restricts us from seeing that the world is not just what we see and experience.  It takes those out-of-the-ordinary moments and occurrences to pull us out of that auto-pilot, and maybe shock our system into growing and learning. 
This is a terrific book and I recommend it to anyone interested in perception and the exploration of how humans interpret the sensory input we receive.  The process of exploration, of understanding and learning, never ends, for once you think you see things clearly what you find is that you actually see the gaps in what you can see.  Those gaps never go away.  The more you learn about anything the more you realize you have yet to learn. This is old wisdom, usually spoken of in very cryptic allegorical terms by mystics and intellectuals, but by using the medium of comic book art, Nick Sousanis has managed to explore this in a new way.  He proposes comic book art, the marriage of text and images, to be the greatest way to open our minds to new perceptions, for our minds fill in the gaps between the text and the images through our imagination.  It is a beautiful thing.  I am not doing the book full justice, for it contains so much more than what I have detailed here.  I highly recommend it.

(To purchase a copy of this book click here: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674744431 )

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