The Science of What We See

Who lives sees much. Who travels sees more.
— Mark Twain
 
A wall found in Manizales, Colombia

A wall found in Manizales, Colombia

An alley in Cartagena's Walled City

An alley in Cartagena's Walled City

Learning to dance in Zambia

Learning to dance in Zambia

Why travel? There are a million answers on the internet written in clever listography and a million more answers from the world's greatest poets and philosophers. But what the hell? I'm going to narcissistically give an answer of my own: we travel to see. But let me explain in a way that seems less painfully obvious. 

When I was four years old, I woke up in the middle of the night and felt my way to my mom's bed crying out, "I can't open my eyes!" My mom responded that my eyes were open. It's one of my earliest memories. After that, I remember being in the hospital, and I remember going home. I remember getting a shot every day, which I later learned was a steroid. The shots made me nauseous, therefore I also remember throwing up during the pledge of allegiance in Kindergarten (expat foreshadowing?). I don't remember all of a sudden being able to see again, but I do remember standing in the yard with my grandma as she asked me how many fingers she was holding up and telling her the right answer - not understanding why it made her so happy. But now when I take in the sight of a colorful new city, I understand. 

Porto Venere, Italy 

Porto Venere, Italy 

I've always sought out bright destinations; when I went to Italy two years ago, the number one thing on my to-do list was "colorful houses on the coast," and in Colombia (most recently, Guatapé), my to-do list was just as hopeless. I think this is because the two places I remember living as a child were a tall, beige apartment complex and a rancher in the suburbs painted a complementary neutral color chosen from a list of approved hues. Like many others in the U.S., this was a housing development that made its residents sign strict agreements as to what they could and could not do to the outside of their house. Even in neighborhoods free of contractual obligations, the unwritten rule still lives: blend in ( and if you don't, prepare for the consequences - and your revenge, like these houses). The monotony of my childhood neighborhood can be comforting, but I've always been inspired by the contrast of the bright and vivid. 

Bicycles in Gutapé, Colombia

Bicycles in Gutapé, Colombia

One of the brightfly colored homes in GutapÉ, Colombia

One of the brightfly colored homes in GutapÉ, Colombia

Salvation Mountain in Niland, California (photo back when filters were really cool...apparently)

Salvation Mountain in Niland, California (photo back when filters were really cool...apparently)

When I was in college, I would sift through trinkets at Goodwill, find some kitschy statue of Jesus or a bird, bring it home, and spray paint it bright turquoise. The suddenly uninspiring and outdated Jesus with his arms outstretched? Suddenly modern, shiny, and a clever representation of the evolution of interpretation! My dear grandpa once even drove me 4 hours to the middle of the desert in Southern California, so I could see Leonard Knight's bright and recycled Salvation Mountain. It's true that I would easily hit up any of the 24 most colorful cities in the world and spend hours wandering with my camera taking pictures of walls, and yes, I admit that sounds pretty ridiculous. But there is science behind the way we see color that fascinates me. 

One of my favorite optical illusions, via brainden.com

One of my favorite optical illusions, via brainden.com

Leo Tolstoy once said, "Everything I know, I know because of love." In 2015, everything I know is because of Google. So I started googling how the brain and vision worked, which was a complicated matter for a Literature major because all I really wanted to do was make more Tolstoy jokes (see above). Nevertheless I eventually discovered the magical reality behind these topics. BBC's documentary Do You See What I See? explains, "Your eye doesn’t simply see color — your brain creates it by drawing on knowledge of what things should look like.” Basically, we see based on memory, and so everything is first filtered through our own memories. Similarly, Beau Lotto's TED Talk, "Optical Illusions Show How We See" demonstrates, "The brain didn't evolve to see the world the way it is - we can't. Instead the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see it in the past." Optical illusions confirm this; just think about a time when you saw what you thought you were supposed to see instead of what was really there. Different color preferences in different cultures also help exemplify the idea. However and thankfully, we're not trapped into seeing as we've always seen. 

Every time we travel, we make new visual memories. We see new colors and sights, and our sight is changed forever. Every day after is a little brighter and wider. Do You See What I See concludes, "None of us sees the world as it is. In this sense we are all delusional, what each of us sees is a meaning derived from our shared and individual histories. This awareness, possibly more than anything else, provides an irrefutable argument for celebrating diversity, rather than fear in conformity. Which is liberating, since knowing this gives you the freedom (and responsibility) to take ownership of your future perceptions of yourself and others." 

What we choose to see and where we choose to travel will inform not only what we see, but also the way we see. So wander the colorful streets of Cartagena and take photos of walls. Visit Cinque Terre for no other reason except that it's different from your own neighborhood. Learn one of the Eskimos' "17 different words for white to describe different snow conditions" ("An Essay on Color"). Drink on the brightly colored bus, and place an alpaca applique on a pink building just for the fun of it. Document the always changing street art in Bogota and Medellin. Make a mountain out of trash in the desert, and paint it bright. 

From the top of La Piedra del Peñol

From the top of La Piedra del Peñol

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain
 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451