Nowhere is the intellectual and imaginative poverty of psychology so clear as in our (lack of) understanding of how the brain processes images. Years of medieval torture of small mammals to try to understand this process has produced only a sketchy, inconsistent and contradictory set of theories: The retina, they claim, sends only critical data about movement, edges, and colour to the brain, which reconstructs the rest of what it ‘sees’ from memory. The left brain processes text while the right brain processes images. The slow-working cortex processes non-urgent complex images while the more instinctive amygdala and sub-cortex process urgent messages of life and motion.

Last week’s Law and Order rerun featured duelling psychologists, one of whom argued the murder defendant’s sub-cortex was so inflamed by seeing Arabs, or even hearing the word ‘Arab’, that he was ‘hard-wired’ (from birth) to hate and kill Arabs and was therefore not responsible for his actions. The prosecution’s rebuttal featured similar pictures of inflamed sub-cortices of other people in response to other images and words, people who were not ‘blinded by hatred’ to the point of ‘mindless’ homicide. As usual in such cases, a deus ex machina was used to rescue the prosecutors — turns out the defendant’s military father abandoned his mother and took up with an Arab woman, causing the defendant’s bitter mother to brainwash her son to hate Arabs. So, fortunately, none of the absurd and murky psychological theories was needed.

Our evolutionary success would certainly be best be served if we indeed had some kind of ‘fast track’ image processing mechanism that would, for example, cause us to process the image of a person raising a gun towards us (or a bear rearing up) more urgently than the image of a sunset. Tests suggest that we scan and remember objects spatially, going from the most important (facial expression, brightest, closest, fastest-moving) to the least important details rather than raster-like left-to-right or top-to-bottom. So if we don’t have enough time for a complete scan before the object passes from view we can at least glean the critical information (‘that was my Mom’, ‘that guy has a cute dimple but bad shoes’).

Is our processing of a photograph different from that of the object(s) it depicts? It is, after all, a two-dimensional unreal, asensual representation of a three-dimensional, sensually complete and complex ‘real’ object or scene. Most animals are quite disinterested in pictorial representations, even if they’re accompanied by ‘realistic’ sound and motion, even if they’re in a mirror — and even if the object depicted is one they’re very interested in in real life. Since we are, after all, animals, that suggests that we’re probably using different parts of our brain to process the representation than we would use to process the original, ‘real’ image. Why then do we sometimes respond more emotionally to a good picture of a loved one (“awww…what a great picture of…”), than to that same loved one sitting elsewhere in the room at the very moment when we view their image?

And why do we use the word ‘imagination’, which literally means the ‘forming of images’, to describe the intellectual process of thinking about and inventing that which does not exist in the real world at all?

I’ve written twice about pigs on this blog. Once I described the atrocity at Wood Lynn Farms, where the Long family of London, Ontario and their criminal corporate cohorts allowed 10,000 pigs to die of excruciating neglect and abuse. The photo that accompanied that story was so troubling that several readers wrote to me asking that I not include such pictures on my blog — they were too upsetting. The other pig was the invented narrator of my short story Myron’s Tale, which I illustrated with the photo above. It’s not my photo, but to me it is perfectly evocative of my point in the story — ‘the very picture’ of freedom and contentment. Pigs, as you may know, are, contrary to myth, very clean and extremely intelligent animals, who love the water, use mud to cool themselves and protect themselves from insects, are very sensitive to and stressed by the bad odours most of them are forced to live with in their factory farm prisons (they have an acute sense of smell, and make excellent trackers) and are particularly adept at video games.

If you were from certain cultural groups in our society, your first reaction to seeing Myron’s picture might be revulsion — you would have been brainwashed to think of pigs as ‘unclean’, disease-ridden, unfit to touch let alone eat. If you were brought up on the Babe movies, you would probably think Myron was loveable and huggable. A friend of mine went hunting wild boar last weekend — if you can call letting men with guns, bows and arrows chase down and kill animals raised for ‘sport’ in a small fenced-off private ‘preserve’ hunting. But I doubt his amygdala would fire off and get him salivating and filled with blood lust at the mere sight of Myron’s image above. In fact, if he saw the horrible conditions in which most factory-farmed pigs spend their tragic lives, I suspect he, like most of us, would become a vegetarian (oops, botanivore) overnight. Though neither the Wood Lynn Farms pictures, nor mere pictures of the inside of slaughterhouses, would be sufficient to provoke such a lifestyle change.

The handful of grainy, bizarre pictures of Abu Ghraib torture, and of the beheading of Americans by hooded, anonymous executioners, have provoked more emotion than all of the thousands of pages of grizzly description of Iraq war deaths, injuries, and violence combined. The Bush Regime tried in vain to prevent the media from showing even the flag-draped coffins of dead American soldiers killed in the same war, because they knew the emotional impact of those photos would be more powerful than the most impassioned and articulate anti-war rhetoric. And the staged photo-ops of the toppling of the statue of Saddam and military deserter Bush in his ‘mission accomplished’ flight suit were brilliant propaganda. So why, amid all the mud-slinging in the current US election campaign, haven’t we seen more ‘negative’ pictures and clips of the party leaders at their worst, the smirking chimp butchering the English language in his heavy-drinking party-hardy youth, and the wooden, Neanderthal-looking Kerry in his long-hair anti-war days? Is this visual propaganda beyond a tacit line that no one (except perhaps The Daily Show) dares to cross, because the images are too powerful, psychological weapons?

I have a theory (of course). It is that we cannot bear very much reality and therefore we self-censor. In the real world we do everything we can to avoid seeing, hearing, feeling anything negative. That’s perfectly understandable. We don’t visit slums, crack dens, slaughterhouses, prisons, factory farms, tenement houses, hospitals (unless we absolutely have to), war zones, third world squalour, animal pounds, nursing homes. We ensure all these things are kept behind closed doors, away from us, where we don’t have to see them. We want the homeless off the streets, the graffiti cleaned up. Out of sight, out of mind. We are excited by the idea of violence, and will watch it endlessly depicted in the movies, but we don’t want to see real violence. We will watch the hero suffer torture bravely, and exact ruthless revenge, but we don’t want to see or hear real torture and death, the screams of true agony, mangled stumps of appendages gushing blood, piles of bodies with their faces half missing, naked blister-covered bodies lying in pools of their final excrement.

And likewise we don’t want to see negative images. Not images of the dead, military and civilian alike, in Iraq, their faces contorted with the final expressions of pain and anguish, dishevelled, missing body parts. Not images of what goes on in the ten percent of all homes where sexual and physical abuse are routine parts of life. Not images of suffering, pain, misery, anger, violence, hopelessness in all those buildings we drive by every day on our way to our antiseptic workplaces. We are offended by such images, they cause us real and lasting pain, and when we are forced to watch them (rarely) we are outraged. We do not want to know. And despite the attempts of Hollywood to densensitize us, when we do see powerful, negative images, it shocks us to our very souls. We want to believe they are not real — rigged for propaganda purposes, photoshopped, anything. Tell me this wasn’t real, it didn’t happen.

Most of us, thanks to our culture’s propensity for putting all these things out of sight, and the media’s self-interested willingness not to subject us to this reality, we don’t have to deal with this very often, and when we do, our reaction is to try to self-heal from the trauma of the images, rather than to do anything about the underlying cause of what they depict. I can’t look. Is it over yet? And then we look for someone or something to blame, ideally something abstract — loss of family values, deranged terrorists — that we can’t do anything about, so we are absolved from responsibility for doing anything about it at all. For billions in the world, however, these images are part of the horror of everyday life. Seeing death or incredible suffering every day, sometimes involving those you love, is a normal occurrence. These people and these animals live lives we cannot, dare not even imagine.

Words we can deal with. They are abstract, they can be discounted, written off. Images are harder. They tell a story, they provoke our stunted imaginations. They force us to face reality.

There is a reason we are so sensitive to horror, to suffering. Like all sentient creatures on Earth we are at heart sympathetic, driven to quickly deal with and eliminate atrocities, responsive to and responsible for our immediate environment. Despite what your church may have raised you to believe, nature abhors pain and suffering, and all her systems are designed to minimize it — not because she is ‘good’, but because a world of boundless joy and beauty makes you want to live, and evolution favours those who want to live. In a world of endless, hopeless, grinding pain, misery, violence and suffering — our world — what’s the point of living? Might as well kill yourself, and maybe take some of those you blame with you. That is, unless this terrible reality, and the images, and your ability to imagine, this reality, are all hidden away where you can’t see it, can’t picture it, can’t imagine it. If we can’t see it, because it’s behind closed doors, or on the other side of the world where the media cameras are never turned on, we can pretend, and believe, that it isn’t happening. That it isn’t real. That we aren’t responsible.

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  1. Myke says:

    Very powerful imagery Dave.

  2. Michael says:

    Excellent analysis, Dave!

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