48: to see the world as it really is, you have to break some rules

(This post is a continuation of post #45, which itself is a continuation of #40. You certainly don’t have to read them in order, however).

Yesterday, my mother and I took a pencil portrait drawing class at our local art co-op.

The theme was learning all of the traditional “rules” of drawing portraits – and then when and how to break them.

The class started with an exercise in which we were to stare at someone else’s face and, using one continuous line, draw what we saw – without looking.

Suffice to say, these drawings looked nothing like faces.

Occasionally one of us one crafted some semblance of an eye or a nose, or even managed to partially outline the other’s face.

But without looking at what we were drawing, it was difficult to place things correctly or size them out proportionally. The result was, if we’re being generous, a Picasso-esque abstraction of a human face.

If we’re not being generous, it was a bunch of scribbles.

So what was the purpose of that exercise?

Human beings know faces very well. We see them everywhere, in everyday objects, thanks to a natural phenomena called pareidolia.

Why do we react to the “faces” of objects so quickly? It’s an important tool that helps us determine the emotional state of those around us. If we are confronted with an angry-looking face, we might instinctively assume it’s a threat – even if it’s an inanimate object.

This familiarity with faces leads to a tendency to “fill in the blanks” when drawing them. We make certain assumptions about the size of features and their location on the face.

When tasked with drawing another person, our first instinct might be to glean certain prominent features, and then fill in the blanks based on what we already know about faces and what they look like.

Because of this, it’s very easy for us to conjure up a face out of thin air.

For example: here’s a face that I drew, purely from imagination, of a person that doesn’t exist.

face sketch

This face was constructed based on simple rules and assumptions I have about faces.

If you look closely, you can still see the lines I drew in order to place features exactly where they needed to go: the head is an oval, and the eyes are almonds that appear halfway down. The nostrils appear a quarter of the way down from the eyes, and the lips an eighth of the way down from the nostrils.

Despite having so closely followed the rules, I’ve constructed a face that belongs to no one. No human in the world looks like this.

So next, individuals in the class took turns modelling their faces, while we closely inspected their unique features.

Eyes were not almonds. Heads were not ovals. Lines were subtle. Shapes, sizes, and proportions varied wildly.

In short, in order to construct reality as it really is, and not as we assumed it should be, we had to look up and pay attention to the details.

We have a natural tendency, I think, to get trapped in a certain way of thinking about the world. Everything works a certain way, and our mind “fills in the blanks.”

In The Four Doors, Evans refers to this as the psychological cage of paradigm.

Paradigm meaning our accepted model of the way the world works.

We expect the world to operate a certain way, and because of this, we place limits on it, and on ourselves.

We define ourselves based on our assumptions about our abilities and the potential we have. Rarely do we permit ourselves to look beyond those assumptions.

So we look around within this limited reality we construct for ourselves, and see what others have achieved. We assume this is all there is to want, and we want it for ourselves.

But even if you achieve what others have achieved, you won’t attain personal fulfillment.

To truly change your life, you have to confront mystery. You have to look up from your routine, from the reality your mind has constructed.

If you spend all your time in one place, doing one thing, you are, in effect, trapping yourself in an eternal, internal paradigm.

So, knowing this, it may help to rewire your brain – not to look around at what is (or rather, what you think is), but to imagine what could be.

That’s the reality I want to chase.

3 Replies to “48: to see the world as it really is, you have to break some rules”

  1. Perhaps because I’m in the midst of studying for a neuroscience exam, but I was immediately curious about the process in the brain that accounts for pareidolia. On a very basic level, there are 2 centers in the brain to process visual information. The primary visual cortex is what initially processes signals from your eyes that there is an object in your visual field. The signal then continues on to the visual association areas, where it is actually interpreted to determine it’s location, size, shape, color, movement, etc. I’m curious because if the brain is interpreting a car as a face (in the visual association area) there is almost no one who walks up to the car to try to make out with it. There must be additional signals that account for our “seeing” a face but “knowing” it’s still a car, and I’m wondering if that is still processed through the visual association areas or if it comes from somewhere else, e.g. the hippocampus due to it’s involvement with memory.

    1. I’m incredibly curious as well. I think the process actually kind of works in reverse order, OR simultaneously.

      What I mean is, I either see a car, THEN a face, or I see the face and the car at the same time.

      Never is it “oh, a face!” and then I realize it’s a car.


      1. Yeah that’s kind of what I mean. Like since I’m no expert I’m not sure if the pathways can overlap or if it’s a separate process for when we see one thing and can also interpret it as an abstract form of another. Kinda cool the things our brains can do though 🤓

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