Visual Intelligence – Donald D. Hoffman (1998)

Visual Intelligence is subtitled ‘How We Create What We See’ and in it Hoffman sets down a tentative set of ‘rules’ that humans use to interpret the visual input from our eyes. These rules work in combination to build up lines, shapes, colors, 3-d placement and more. You can try some of the visual illusions that help to show how the rules can allow us to be ‘tricked’ in many ways, such that your sense of what you’re seeing is not what is really there…

In the final chapters, Hoffman argues that we do the same thing with the input from our other senses as we do with the visual input; we create representations that are well-adapted to our survival. And he goes further, to say that our representations, while they must be taken seriously, are not necessarily a guide to what is ‘really’ out there…

I believe these are important points. Clearly we only pick up on certain spectrums of all that is ‘out there’ while other organisms are able to to pick up different spectrums, and may have very different (but also effective) rules for interpreting the input. Given this, can we really take seriously the idea that we are somehow close to understanding the universe? I’d say it would be foolish to think so.

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  • […] I’ve probably made this book look a lot ‘heavier’ than it often is; much of it is a good brief summary of the history of life. But it does define its own terminology which takes some getting used to, and I probably will need to read this again to get the full message. There are some interesting parallels with Hoffman’s book Visual Intelligence.   […]

  • By Mediated » 2005 in Review on December 22, 2005 at 11:29 am

    […] Other books that stood out in my mind this year mostly revolved around issues of how we ‘understand things’ or perhaps how our brains work. Donald Hoffman’s Visual Intelligence (1998) was very good – he describes a set of rules that we apparently use to interpret visual information (and uses plenty of optical illusions to indicate how they can ‘fool’ us into perceiving things that aren’t quite there). I also liked A Different Universe (2005) by physicist Robert Laughlin, who makes the case that reduction has gone about as far as is useful, and that there are many properties of elements that can only be found through experimentation (his work was in properties of superconductivity at very low temperatures). The book is for the layman. The idea is that you can’t use the basic laws to predict very much of the emergent behavior; you have to discover it by observation. The larger idea, for me, is that we really have still just scratched the surface of the phyical world, and perhaps that we will always find more, since we are mostly creating new mental maps and models… […]

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