To put it at its most extreme, I sometimes think of many Rembrandt paintings as kind of neurological construction kits, images that are not just artful images, but also artfully arranged collections of cues which activate autonomic visual constructions in our brain and overlay an even more artful mental construct image over the paint image in our consciousness.
Rembrandt images like this often have a wide, dark surround. This separates the internal image, arranged by Rembrandt’s aesthetics, from ‘normal’ reality framing it. There are areas of extreme dark and extreme light to activate the areas of our brain which construct a light source and surfaces for the light to fall on. There are areas of high contrast, well-defined edges to activate the areas of our brain which construct edges and forms to contain edges. There is an area of bright color to activate the area of our brain which constructs hues on surfaces. And there is an encompassing arrangement of smooth gradients and soft, soft transitions which link all the visual areas without sending our brain the cues to switch off the other construction projects in progress—the light, the surfaces and forms, the colors...
No matter how seemingly jumbled-up Rembrandt’s arrangement of oddly placed lights and darks might appear, no matter how seemingly arbitrary Rembrandt’s arrangements of grays and browns with just one or two touches of color might appear, once our neurology goes to work, once our autonomic visual system constructs the coherent dynamic solution to Rembrandt’s cues, we have much more than a static image: we have a living piece of art, alive in our mind, given life by Rembrandt’s profound skill, sparked to continuing life by the mechanisms of our seeing, our own thinking.
... And this, we shall find, is typical of your visual intelligence. Its nature is to construct, and to do so according to principles. Without exception, everything you see you construct: color, shading, texture, motion, shape, visual objects, and entire visual scenes.
... This construction process is multistaged. You don’t construct a visual scene in one step, but rather in a multiplicity of stages. Typically the construction at one stage depends upon, and takes as its starting point, the results of constructions at other stages. Your construction, for instance, of the shape of a book in three dimensions might take as its starting point the results of your constructions of motion, lines, and vertices in two dimensions.
With this multiplicity of stages is associated a multiplicity of rules of visual processing. These rules of visual processing, and their many and varied interactions, are central to your visual intelligence. They work so quickly and effectively that normally you are unaware of them.
Donald Hoffman is professor of cognitive science, philosophy, and computer science at the University of California, Irvine. His book is an amazing tour through our visual system with examples at every stage. (He has a website, which contains some examples and links to others.)
Beyond, however, simply discussing vision, Professor Hoffman concludes his book with a discussion of how research is strongly suggesting that all our senses are constructions. What we see, hear, feel, taste... There are remarkable similarities to how all our senses interact with our conscious awareness.
And Professor Hoffman doesn’t hesitate to follow these intriguing threads deep into to their philosophical tangles and knots: Is our awareness itself a construct? What is the nature of reality within which these constructs occur? What or who exactly is doing the constructing?
It is philosophy and science and art, and maybe even religion. And it can all start simply, just by looking at a Rembrandt painting: