On Neural Substrates of Visual Depth of Focus
3rd Apr 2012Posted in: Blog 1
On Neural Substrates of Visual Depth of Focus
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Quiescence and Distress

My brain in 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, my 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.

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.

So this is a pretty exhaustive and chronological list of the different stages of my experience just about every time i take a 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 which conditioner, placing paint tubes in order, 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.

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 sweeping strokes and frenetic 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 usually means playing out family home videos in my head.

7) When i am painting, just as when i am showering, my thoughts oscillate between autobiographical memories in 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, then spending some time putting all that in present context and using it to form new ideas and new ways of seeing things.

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.

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. 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 is functionally located just above the area which is functionally allocated for the production of speech known as Broca's area. I hypothesized, though i have no scientific confirmation of this experiential analysis yet, that there was neural cross talk, or cross firing between the two regions which could account for why i might 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 onslaught of ideas which i experience when painting with my right hand.


Sensory receiving areas to stimulate your interest in brain study

When i am painting, i am attending to everything and nothing in particular. Sharp edges in my surroundings turn to soft forms just as lush colours turn to washed out pastels. What i have noticed is that my attention tends to wander into a particular place when my eyes are doing that. My attention tends to get unfocussed, and disparate as it drifts in a typical fashion towards my past. 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) encourage the temporary blurring of vision.

3) Lead to an experience of reviewing my past.

4) Tend to culminate in novel thoughts which are then either painted out or written down.

a painting of a person writing.

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 is more hardwired 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 each eye to an opposite side of the head way back into the primary visual cortex of the brain. 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 functional regions in the brain. 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 sent to one area and that when aperture of the iris is wide, a different region of the brain is involved.

Aperture in a camera lense, it does what an iris does doesn't it? Do we not make things in our own image? Is this not a kind of support for the rationale of art therapy^

My thesis so far has been to suggest that the aperture of the iris is correlated with a functional region of the visual cortex to the extent that large and small apertures go to their respective regions in the brain. It is not too hard to see how this might be happening. If you consider that using a finger on your hand uses a specific set of localized muscles while using all five fingers to grasp an object and lift it involves a much wider set of muscles beyond those used to move the five fingers individually. When it comes to movement, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts because muscles are interdependent and the more muscles you use, the more you need counter-active muscles to ensure the movement.  In conclusion of this post, my theory is that short focus in the eye is useful for work in the immediate present and is therefore a more task oriented focus. On the other hand, wide focus through large aperture is conducive to reflection on one's past and access to autobiographical memories. There does seem to be some anecdotal support for this theory in the following examples: 1) Movies have historically symbolized flashbacks and autobiographical reflections of lead characters by the intermediary visual effects of blurring the camera. In so doing, the image becomes blurred 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 remain open to the possibility that i may be partially or completely out to lunch on anything i am talking about. i await the participation of other art therapists, neuroscientists and artists with anticipation! -thanks for reading.


One Response

  1. Carol says:

    Hi Tom
    I just read this, after linking from your gender post.
    Your musings make sense to me. I tend to adjust my focus by squinting. I squint when looking at my or other’s art, I squint when I want to change how I am concentrating about something, but I’ve never thought about a neurological connection for this habit of making things blurry in order to see differently. Something I love about art therapy is the inter-disciplinary nature of the work!

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