Visual perception accounts for 80% of what our brain takes in – reason enough to take a closer look at it.
Humans have five senses (not counting proprioception), can see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and yet they perceive almost 80 per cent of their environment through the eyes alone. People think, dream and speak in images. Anyone who is on the move every day with their smartphone, who can focus more on photos on Instagram and short explanatory videos on YouTube than on pages and pages of articles in newspapers, will hardly disagree with this. The image has become the basic medium. Since the 19th century, “a new world of the visual” has emerged, writes historian Paul Gerhard, to the point of dissolving the boundaries between fictional and real reality. Sure, technology changes our perception and attention.
Humans are “eye animals”, one would think. But that’s not quite true… even though many facts speak for it. The fact that we love the visual is due to the culture in which we live and the language we grew up with, conclude Dutch scientists. More on that later. First, let’s go back to the initial question, which we still can’t answer completely: Why do we humans love the visual so much?
The understanding of images is intuitive
For one thing, because we can recognise and interpret things within nanoseconds: 60 per cent of the cerebral cortex, the seat of higher brain functions, is constantly busy analysing the visible world. These 60 per cent correspond to about a quarter of our entire brain.
So, image recognition does not only take place in the eye. The eyes are merely receivers, they perceive signs, sculptures, light effects better and more intensively than written text, which must first be made out of individual letters. Because such a large part of our brain is occupied with image recognition, we also speak of the “visual system”, meaning the complexly interconnected parts of the central nervous system. The information reaches the brain via the eye with its retina, retina and sensory cells, through various nerve pathways.
This is where the actual “seeing” takes place, the visual perception. The recognition and interpretation of objects and scenes works through a comparison with already stored experiences, scenes that are linked to emotions, smells, sounds. In short: pictures appeal to feelings and other senses. But how connections are made is still a little-researched area. This also includes the phenomenon of facial recognition. What computers are currently learning, the human brain has long been able to do. But why we remember faces and why we can associate them is still a mystery to researchers.
We perceive information selectively
It is certain that images can convey a great deal of information. The advertising industry also knows this: over the last two centuries, images have become the carriers of advertising messages for good reason. They literally say more than a thousand words.
And: the first impression counts. A well-known study by the Max Planck Institute for Economics found that as little as 150 milliseconds are enough to subconsciously form a fixed impression of someone. This is also the case because we are flooded with information every day. Directly after getting up, with the sunrise or switching on the bedside lamp, tens of thousands of messages reach us. The brain then quickly decides which information might be interesting for us. We only perceive a fraction of what is offered to us. In a study, Microsoft highlights three different attention modes in the digital era: The “Attention Ninja”, who strongly distinguishes between tasks and thus controls his attention; the “Attention Pragmatist”, who consciously combines activities; and the multitasking mode or “Attention Ambidextrous modus”.
For visual perception, sometimes only individual cues are sufficient. The brain then fills in missing information to draw a picture of reality that is as coherent as possible: A person from the side becomes a beloved partner, whom one still seems to recognise clearly from a distance. However, our senses can also be deceived in this way, or we begin to hallucinate. What we see is not always reality. This is not a sign of a mental disorder, but of a well-functioning brain.
The phenomenon of synaesthesia means the combination of seemingly incompatible sensory perceptions such as image and sound. For example, people apparently perceive a kind of muffled sound when looking at this rope-jumping electricity pylon, although the GIF is silent:
Hi there, yeah, for some reason people like cropping my name off the bottom pic.twitter.com/ekcOWeQNbR
— HappyToast ★ (@IamHappyToast) December 4, 2017
The hierarchy of sensory organs is not the same everywhere
Five continents, many cultures. Not everywhere do the eyes dominate perception as much as in German- and English-speaking countries. “For each sensory channel, there are cultures that can best describe these perceptions in language and others that struggle to put them into words,” says researcher Asifa Majid. Native English speakers, for example, find it easier to talk about things they see and harder when they only smell them. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands found this out by giving people from 20 different cultures sensory impressions in the form of pictures of different shapes and colours, rough or smooth textures to feel, samples of tastes or tone sequences with different pitch, sound or tempo.
They wanted to find out whether important senses such as vision are also more closely linked to conscious perception and language. During the evaluation, they paid attention to whether there were certain terms for colours or sounds, who paraphrased impressions in what way or had particular difficulties in doing so. The result: Farsi-speaking Iranians and people from Laos, for example, were best able to express the taste of their language. In Mali and Ghana, people seem to find it easier to describe things by touch. Australians, on the other hand, are more “nose people” and were best able to express themselves linguistically through their sense of smell, one of the most primal senses.