Neural substrates of visual depth of focus: an exploration of phenomena
my brain in the shower is different from my brain out of the shower.
When i am in the shower, my eyes tend to be unfocussed. I know my own body well enough that i don't have to look at it when washing. I have a mental map of my body which allows me to wash up in the shower equally well whether i use my sight or not. My hands can do all of the work on their own, feeling their way around every cartiledged corner, fleshing their way to any place i direct them. Note that this ability persists in very few other spaces beyond our physical bodies. In the small confines of my shower, i make very little use of my eyes indeed and whenever my eyes are not the primary source of stimuli being treated, they tend to go into a kind of wide angle or blurred mode. In this state, they are unfocussed,deep and autobiographical. More specifically, i tend to wander into my past, thinking about conversations and personal interactions retrospectively. A kind of scanning or reviewing of a stream of consciousness which seems to be flowing through my thoughts as the warm water flows over my body.
Does hot or cold water change the type of thinking i do in the shower? Does cold not bring my autonomic system into a mild state of shock, therefore leading me into the present while hot water allows me to drift off into more distant thoughts such as being in utero?
I have observed this experience often enough to find it systematic. My observations regarding the shower experience are the following:
1) The warm water on my body is inherently regressive as it takes me back to a fetal state when i was basking in warm fluid, attending not so much to sights but to sensations, sounds, textures, vibrations.
2) When i am in that early fetal state, i am most at peace, calm and secure, just as i might have been in the womb.
3) My eyes naturally blur and my visual focus grows wider though less precise.
4) Soon after my vision blurs, my attention is directed to a place of past experience .
5) This place is one in which i am reviewing previous experiences with people who have affected me in some way.
6) As i am in that place, i am simultaneously aware that i am marauding in the place of my episodic, autobiographical memory and that i am not only reviewing my past while being aware of it in the present, but i am also projecting into the future. As i am projecting in to the future, i am playing out possible outcomes of situations, conversations and interactions with people to envision possibilities or work through problems.
So this is a pretty exhaustive and chronological list of the different stages of my experience just about every time i take a warm shower. Having looked at this list pretty closely over the last few months, i can conclude that it resembles the stages i tend to experience in the process of painting. Ultimately, the experience of basking in autobiographical memory is nearly identical. When i am painting, my process is as follows:
1) I clear out my studio of any objects from a previous session and prepare my various surfaces for work. This includes preparing my brushes with conditioner, placing paint tubes in order and within reach, taking out and ordering various mediums such as mineral spirits, damar varnish and linsee oil, cleaning palette surfaces, laying out painting knives, rags and other special tools.
2) I look at my painting for anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour, blurring my vision and attempting to project forms and figures onto the canvas, envisioning possibilities.
3) Once i am confident that i can see what i am going to paint, i prepare my palette based on the particular vision i have concocted.
4) I take to the canvas and fight out some colour and shape with broad strokes and motivated movement working in the corners and the center almost simultaneously.
5) At this time my vision is blurred and i can see every part of the canvas simultaneously even though my brush is moving in one specific time-place. At times i am focused on the tip of the brush but usually, that same tip is just somewhere close to the central field of vision while the corners of the canvas remain just as prominent within the broad focus i am maintaining.
6) At some point in this process, i become locked in to episodic memory, replaying, re living experiences i have had with people who have affected me in some important way. This sometimes means playing out family home videos in my head or questioning conversations from the past. This post is an example of some of the content which comes to me while painting.
7) When i am painting, just as when i am showering, my thoughts oscillate between autobiographical memories of the past and novel thoughts directed towards the future. That is to say that i am spending some of my time simply going over past events, deconstructing them, then spending some time reconstructing in present context. From this forward and backward process, new ideas seem to emerge.
I should say that nearly all of my blog posts began while painting or in the shower. Only a few of them emerged in other contexts. If i ever get writers block, i am pretty sure i can unblock it with a 15 minute shower, a few ounces of scotch or a 1 hour painting session.
The neuropsychologist Donald Hebb is credited with coining the popular phrase: "neurons that fire together, wire together". His observations in this case lend support to my idea that painting with your right hand could facilitate speech. What i need to do now is draw the connection to autobiographical speech in a future post.
It has been documented a number of times throughout my blog posts that painting tends to spark a kind of hurricane of ideas for me which i must then race to put down in digital form. Sometimes the process is so active that i hardly do any painting at all! I began taking a closer look at how my painting behaviour might be responsible for triggering an onslaught of thought. My research into the fundamentals of neurology led me to discover that the painting activity of my right hand and particularly my index finger and thumb is functionally located just above the area which is allocated for the production of speech known as Broca's area and the motor area dedicated to the movement of the lips for speech. I hypothesized, though i have no scientific confirmation of this experiential hypothesis yet, that there was neural cross talk, between the two regions which could account increased co-stimulation. This is temporarily posited here to explain why i tend to be mouthing words and producing novel ideas in the process of painting with my right hand. I should like some day to undertake several paintings with my left hand to see if the same phenomenon occurs. If my hypothesis is correct, then left handed painting would not lead to the surge of ideas which i experience when painting with my dominant hand.
- Sensory receiving areas to stimulate your interest in brain study
When i am painting, the best way to describe my focus is that i am attending to everything and nothing in particular simultaneously. Sharp edges in my surroundings turn to soft forms just as lush colours turn to washed out pastels. It is as though my mind makes all parts of the painting equal in tone in order to better perceive or highlight the impact of what i am adding to the painting in the present. It is kind of like a mental flashlight on what i am doing, relative to what is already there. What i have noticed is that my attention tends to wander into a particular place when my eyes are doing that and while my eyes may be zeroing in on a section of the painting, my mind is disengaged from that automatic motor activity, taking advantage of the moment to wander a bit while my hands are busy. My attention tends to get unfocussed, and disparate as it drifts in a typical fashion towards my past or personally significant features of a moment closer to the present. As i mentioned, this experience in painting runs parallel to the experience of taking a shower because both experiences:
1) lead to an initial sense of calm.
2) facilitate the temporary blurring of vision.
3) lead to a process of deconstructing and reconstructing significant events.
4) Tend to culminate in novel thoughts which are then either painted out or written down.
the painter Alex Grey toys with the notion that art is language.
The senses are hardwired into the brain. They are the gateways through which the outside gets inside. The ears go to the temporal lobe, the eyes go to the primary visual cortex in the back of the brain, the nose goes to the olfactory and the trigeminal nerves through to the entorhinal cortex, the taste buds on the tongue take you into the AI/FO(Anterior Insula/Frontal Operculum) regions of the gustatory cortex while touch goes to the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices. Each digit of the hand has an area of the brain allocated to it just as each part of the body is mapped in the brain. It is hard to find a sensory process which occupies more dedicated neural real estate than that of vision however. Vision consists of two holes in the front of your head, receiving light through the retina's rods and cones, then sending the waveform signals from two parallel halves of each eye to the opposite side of the head way back into the primary visual cortex of the brain i.e. the right visual field of each eye and the left visual field of each eye cross over to opposite sides of the visual cortex. If you wanted to look at reaction times, you might conclude that the sense of touch is the most hardwired because reaction times to touch are faster than reaction times to sight. This means you can take your hand off a burner faster when you feel it than you can when you simply see it without the sensation of touch. Maybe it is simply that the pathway for touch is shorter, ie. faster and that the pathway for vision is longer because it can undergo different depths of processing as it follows either dorsal or lateral streams. Whatever the case, i am just talking out loud here to see if i really know what i think i know. My point in this paragraph is to take you to a place where you might consider that the different focal appertures of the eye could correspond to different mental activities. Put another way, i want you to consider the possibility that when the eye is intensely focused with a narrow aperture of the iris, signals are being processed in a particular way and that when aperture of the iris is wide, a different kind of mental activity is sollicited.
Human beings make a piece of technology designed to replicate the function of the iris and what do they call it? "the iris"! It is uncanny.
My thesis so far has been to suggest that the aperture of the iris is correlated with a quality of mental function (attention) and that to the extent that certain activities facilitate large and small apertures, those activities may also facilitate certain ranges of mental experience. For example, i suggested that wider aperture involves broader focus and less depth of field visually speaking and that this mode of vision has a correlate in the mental activity of introspection. As a contrasting example, i suggested that narrow focus of visual field such as that required to look at the tip of a paint brush would be correlated with a greater attention to the present moment and thoughts about what an individual is doing with their body here and now. Put another way: broad focus = introspection, past, deconstructive and reconstructive while narrow focus = attention to present.
My theory is that short focus in the eye is useful for work in the immediate moment and is therefore a more task oriented focus. It is most useful when engaged in a fight or flight response for example, which might explain why people suffering from PTSD often remark on specific visual memories during the event. Narrow focus may be more likely to be associated with a mental attentiveness to the present because this kind of focus is used in high demand task oriented behaviour such as driving a car (keep your eyes on the road!) or sewing. On the other hand, wide focus through large aperture is conducive to reflection on one's past and access to autobiographical memories. (Have i drilled this point enough?) There does seem to be some anecdotal parallel support for this theory in the following examples: 1) Movies have historically symbolized flashbacks and autobiographical reflections of characters by the intermediary visual trick of blurring the camera. In so doing, the image becomes decentralized and the audience is transported back in time to a point where the focus will resume precision and bring us into a new present.Well, that's it for this post. I want to remind the reader that all my posts are experiential in origin and in no way represent an absolute truth on any subject matter whatsoever. I try to do as much research as time permits to increase my confidence in what i think i know. I remain open to the possibility that i may be partially or completely out to lunch on anything i am talking about but i don't let that deter me from sharing my musings with you. My hope, as usual, is for the participation of other art therapists, neuroscientists and artists! -thanks for reading.
Wrist, fingers, lips and tongue all lined up in a column. I think i read in Rhawn Joseph that links between hand moments and speech have been noted before. In any speech of a public figure, you can observe usually the right hand is punctuating speech, basically adding visual representations of periods, commas and emphasis.