Playing with light and vision

The arts have always held a mirror to our lives, and now, artists are managing just that with the process that drives our lives: the inner workings of cognition. I'm thinking of two exhibits that play with the connection between light and vision. The first, by James Turrell, involves giving viewers visual experiences that demand they see themselves seeing. Typically, we look at something in the distance without noticing the process that allows us to view that something, but Turrell sets up careful experiences with light that leave no other option but to attend to one's own process of perception. When I visited his LACMA exhibit, this phrase that he used to describe his work caught my attention: "We create the reality we think we receive." After experiencing his art, that phrase is much less metaphysical than a simple observation about perception.

The second exhibit, by the Oakes brothers, presents their novel approach to drawing that allows the hand to exactly trace the way the brain constructs visual experience. Done well, the process involves a curved surface on which to draw, the edges of paper, a structure to hold the head in place, and one's own human vision. But you can experience the process yourself by holding your hand a few inches from your face and directing attention at an object in the distance. A ghost-like version of your hand appears to the side of your real hand. If you replace your hand with paper, and place the tip of a pencil on the edge of the paper, you will see the same ghost-like transparencies over to the side, laminated over the scene in the background. Sure enough, you can trace the world. This New York Times story captures the process well, but for the details, have a look at these interviews with the artists: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

What does this all mean? The arts could play a powerful role in educating students about their own intricate and beautiful cognition. What experiences could we design to draw attention to emotion, metacognition, motivation, etc. in such a vivid and yet scientific manner? Giving students a novel understanding of their own cognition could re-write the standard learning script, changing how students set goals, design learning, and respond to struggle.