David, Florence, Italy


When you were born you could not really see at all.  Your eyes were still growing ––  only half the size of your parents. You came out of darkness into a world of dazzling light, color, tone, texture, shapes, and motion.  It would take about two months before you could recognize fully your parents faces.

At first, the world appears to be a bright and blurry mix of patterns and blobs.   According to the American Optometric Association, babies “are not born with all the visual abilities they need in life . . . they need to learn how to use the visual information the eyes send to their brain in order to understand the world around them and interact with it appropriately.”

When Life Begins

In April 1965, Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson published a stunning photographic essay in LIFE magazine featuring the beginnings of life. Nilsson’s cover image of an 18-week-old human fetus used revolutionary image technology to capture a moment “that allowed the world to see what it had never before witnessed.”

As we grow we acquire the skills to survive in the world –– depth perception and ability to focus and track objects better.

Human beings have always tested the limits of vision, from landing a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a thunderstorm, hitting a 95-m.p.h. fastball, to sinking a 60-foot put into a 4.25-inch hole with a 1.6-inch ball on a golf course.

Weighing slightly more than 3 pound, the neurons in our brains generate more than 10 quadrillion calculations every second.  Research shows the human brain can process an image in 13 milliseconds ––fast enough to return a serve from tennis star Serena Williams at 125-miles per hour. Together, the human eye and brain are by far the most complex organs in the body.

Donis A. Donis contends, “Seeing is a separate step in visual communication. Seeing is the process of absorbing information into the nervous system through the eyes, the sense of sight” (A Primer for Visual Literacy, p. 20).

At the same time  John Berger suggests, “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.”  In this way, we can say that visual communication begins with awareness.

On one hand, the act of seeing is concerned with the physiological and biological aspects of the visual process in relationship to cognitive abilities of the brain. On the other hand, the act of seeing ccan also focus on subjective experience such as emotions, cultural tastes, attitudes, and beliefs.

In 1958, Frederick Franck went to Central Africa to work as a medical missionary for Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, a theologian and physician. Before leaving for Lambaréné, Gabon, Franck, a native of the Netherlands, purchased new cameras to document his experiences. After just a few weeks of making pictures, however, Franck put the camera away, forever.  What the surgeon, philosopher, and artist

had discovered was making pictures  with a camera actually prevents us from really seeing and truly appreciating what we are pointing the camera at.  For Franck, “The glaring contrast between seeing and looking-at the world around us is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing” (Zen and the Art of Seeing).

Franck adds, “We have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.”

For Rudolf Arnheim, seeing requires “an interplay between properties supplied by the object and the nature of the observing subject. This objective element in experience justifies attempts to distinguish between adequate and inadequate conceptions of reality” (1954, 1972. p 5).

Complex interactions between external visual stimulus and prior knowledge, goals, and expectations are brought into play through visual perception. Even so, looking at something and really understanding its full meaning are different issues.

What we call reality begins with our senses ––  seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  The physical environment we experience with our senses is one dimension of living, but we create the outside world our minds.

We cannot separate the mental processes that accompany what our eyes take in. In fact, images are not created in the eye at all, but rather are constructed in different areas of the brain.

Visual perception is a way of explaining the complex interactions between the eye and brain. What we know about the visual system today   

about the act of seeing that . There is no escaping that the visual experience is mix of physiological, biological, cognitive, and mental processes –– all of which occur in milliseconds. The dictionary defines visual perception as the ability to interpret the surrounding environment by processing information that is contained in visible light.

However, before interpretation visual messages, we have to understand how the visual system works. First and foremost, “seeing is not always believing” as the adage goes. For David Minger, “Visual perception is easily tricked, and in the legal system eyewitness accounts are notoriously untrustworthy.” **

For Ira Hyman,  “People are horrible eyewitnesses. We misperceive things. Our memories are limited. We create false memories in response to misleading suggestions. We reconstruct our memories. People frequently choose somebody in a police line-up even when the culprit isn’t there. We are victims of social pressure from friends, family, and authority figures.” **

According to the Innocence Project, “Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.”