This is Part X of the Specificity Sequence
Cats notoriously get stuck in trees because their claws are better at climbing up than down. Throughout this sequence, we’ve seen how humans are similar: We get stuck in high-level abstractions because our brains struggle to unpack them into specifics. Our brains are better at climbing up (concrete→abstract) than down (abstract→concrete).
If you’ve ever struggled to draw a decent picture, you know what being stuck at a high level of abstraction feels like in the domain of visual processing. I know I do. My drawing skills are nonexistent. I can draw kindergarten-quality stick figures, but I don’t even know where to begin drawing something that looks the least bit realistic.
Despite how pathetic a stick figure looks, it’s worth marveling at our brain’s formidable power to distill a mess of light and dark stimuli into a few geometric parts.
A stick figure is a mental representation of an animal which is great for practical tasks like throwing a spear at it.
The question is just, why can people like me only draw a pathetic stick figure even when we’re trying to draw a nice picture?
The visual system was only under selective pressure to evolve a processing pathway from sensing visual features to building an abstract representation of those features, not a processing pathway to transform a high-level mental representation into a low-level pencil strokes representation. I draw stick figures because my conscious mind thinks in stick figures.
But we know that the unconscious part of our visual brains isn’t one-way. When we first recognize that we’re seeing a cow, our brain propagates visual information from abstract mental representations down toward lower-level visual feature recognition.
Consider this image:
Most people have trouble identifying what they’re seeing in different parts of the image, until they realize it’s a cow, and then all the parts snap into focus. Their interpretation of low-level features of the image, e.g. that the white dots within the black foreground region on the leftmost part of the image are “furry”, is influenced top-down by their abstract mental representation of a cow.
How do skilled artists navigate down the ladder of visual abstraction consciously?
In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards teaches students to accurately sketch the scene coming into their eyes through a clever upside-down drawing technique. The technique bypasses the part of the brain that would normally abstract visual input:
When presented with an upside-down image as a subject to be drawn, the left-hemisphere’s verbal system [the abstracting mechanism] says, in effect, “I don’t do upside down. It’s too hard to name the parts, and things are hardly ever upside-down in the world. It’s not useful, and if you are going to do that, I’m out of here.” The dominant verbal system “bows out,” and the sub-dominant visual mode is “allowed” to take on the task for which it is well suited.
Upside-down drawing helps draw the brain’s attention to what Edwards calls the “component skills of drawing”. These include edges, negative spaces, proportions, lights and shadows. For example, your brain’s high-level abstract representation might tell you that the boundary of an object is horizontal, but a lower-level examination of what your eye is seeing will contradict that, leading you to represent the boundary by drawing a slanted line on the page.
“Drawing on the right side of the brain” means drawing using mid-level representations of visual inputs, rather than the fully abstract ones we rely on for other activities.
Edwards has an online gallery of her students’ self-portraits before and after taking her class. This one stopped me in my tracks:
Staring at the “after” drawing feels like I’m witnessing the first time the artist finally saw her own face, and wanted to communicate the joy and beauty of what she saw by accentuating it for the rest of us. I’ve bought a copy of Edwards’s book because I hope to try out her techniques and rewire my brain to experience my own visual revelation.
It’s clearly possible to draw detailed realistic pictures. Great artists can do it. A $5 camera can do it. The interesting takeaway for our purposes is that drawing realistic pictures means developing the skill of moving in the abstract→concrete direction, against the grain of normal conscious thought.
Next post: The Power to Be Creative (coming soonish)