The Mind’s Eye

What do you see in the photo? A house? A tree?

What you see in the photo is really only a patch of sky, and silhouettes that could be part of a tree and the corner of a house. But I’m sure you “pictured” a house, a tree, maybe even the ground they’re standing on.

What we see, and how we visualise it are two very different things. I’m not talking about the technical clean-up of the picture quality. But when you’re in a room with a pillar, you imagine the space behind it. And when you put your hand behind your back you picture it attached to the end of your arm, even though you can’t see it. So you’re adding information or ideas to the mix.

Since Shakespeare’s day, we speak of seeing something in our mind’s eye, and we think we’re artificially creating an image like the one we might see with our eyes. In reality, we’re building up a mental image, that may contain visual elements, but also contains concepts and ideas.

I remember a dream where I was standing by a stairwell. Upon waking I realised that I had “seen” a friend walk down several flights of stairs in the dream, although from where I was I couldn’t have “seen” her half the time. So in my dream I was really tracking her progress in a mental image, like an architects drawing of the building.

When I ask someone whether they see images in dreams, I get an emphatic yes! When they go into more details, I find that they too describe more than would be visible. My conclusion is that we dream mental images, rather than visual ones.

The advantage of mental images is not just that they use up less memory space than visual ones. They are also far more flexible. Have you ever dreamed about someone who looks like A, but you know he’s really B? And when you’re picturing something you’re reading about, no need to dream up  complex constructions: your mind can simply add a tag: “stunning architecture”.

Easy as pie.

(This week’s Writing Challenge.)

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