Sunday, 24 June 2012

Drawing Faces Part 2

Drawing and Illusion No 3 - Drawing faces - part 2 Patterns and Context

Drawing Faces
Part 2 - Pattern Plasticity and Context
In the first newsletter we looked at the Smiley pattern which I said seems to project the emotion "happiness" directly into our subconscious minds, and I suggested this is a pattern that is written in "mentalese", which is the wordless language of the subconscious mind.  For the record I would like to correct an error; the word mentalese was first coined in 1933 by a man called Jerry Fodor.  Steve Pinker popularise the concept of mentalese through his book "The Language Instinct".
You will recall that I thought the Smiley is a one-horse-trick, and very different from photographs of faces which engages the mind with  much broader spectrum of mental responses.   The Smiley seems to conveys only one thing; happiness. 
The Smiley  has no gender or identity, but it is easy to give the Smiley a gender.  To make it a girl we add a "girly" object, such as a bow in her hair.

To make it a boy we add a boyish object (bow tie under his chin)
Something very interesting is going on here; is this the beginnings of a mentalese grammar.

Observation 1:  By adding two patterns together you can make a single new pattern that has the combined emotional vales of the two core patterns.:  For instance a "girly object pattern" added to a "happiness object pattern" combine together to  make a single "happy girl pattern"    It is quite analogous to spoken language, where words that are collected together into a single phrase create the image of one thing.  If you take the word Happy, and the word Girl  we get "a happy girl", and the sentence gives us the single image of a happy girl. 

Observation 2:  Patterns interact with each other, and change their meaning according to their context to other  patterns:  When the bow is under the chin of the smiley it becomes a boy, when it is attached to the top of the head it becomes a girl.  Where the bow is placed on the smiley pattern changes its meaning, from happy girl to happy boy.  In written language the simple re-arrangement of words will change the meaning of the sentence:  "The cat sat on the mat", and "the mat sat on the cat" have reverse meanings.   
Perhaps you are thinking; Gosh, patterns follow grammatical rules, just like language does.  I would ask you to reverse this thought to; Gosh, language follows grammatical rules, just like sight does.  Thought, and the non verbal, often subconscious world of mentalese are awash with grammar which we know little about.  When we look at the grammar in our language we are looking through a window into the the much older and more secret world of mentalese.

In this newsletter I am going to concentrate on Context which is one the most powerful tools at the disposal of artists. 
This image has two patterns superimposed on top of each other:  "A Smiley with Eyebrows" and "A Snake with its Tongue Out" 

Look at the mark that makes the top right hand eyebrow of  "The Smiley with Eyebrows" It is an eyebrow, right?
Now look at the mark which makes the tongue of the "The Snake with its Tongue Out"  It is a tongue, right?
What I am trying to demonstrate here is that this mark can either be an eyebrow or a tongue.  When you look at it in the context of the Smiley pattern it winks back "I am an eyebrow".  When you look at it in the context of a snake pattern it winks back "I am a Snake's Tongue"  You will notice you cannot see it as an eyebrow and tongue at the same time.  In mentalese things cannot wink two things at the same time.  Things can flick from one identity to another, but they only wink one thing at a time. This is famously demonstrated in the duck-rabbit illusion.

With this pattern you can see a duck head or a rabbit head, but never hold both at the same time.  To continue with our lesson about context, we can make the mind more likely to see a duck head by changing the context.  In effect adding a duck's body.

And we can do the same thing in reverse
I hope by now I am beginning to convince you that the visual world obeys rules of grammar and syntax, just like spoken language relies on these rules.  It is often surprising to people that our visual world is interpreted through a mental language that uses grammar.  We think of grammar as being something that was invented by evolution to help us use words, when in fact grammar was always there in the brain, long before man and language evolved.   Mentalese has always used grammar.  Language, when it evolved, was not made from new cloth, it utilised methods of processing information that were already there in the brain.  By looking at Language, and the syntax and grammar that make language work, we can begin to look for clues about how the grammar and syntax of sight might work.  In his book, "visual intelligence", Donald Hoffman has listed about 39 rules about "how we create what we see".  Perhaps in later newsletters we will go through some of these, but for the moment I want to return to context and patterns, and how together they are a powerful but simple tool for making sense of the world.
One of the important features of patterns is their plasticity.  There is a theory that all thought, and learning, are about handling patterns.   The nobel prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon believes that  learning involves the accumulation of easy-to-recognise patterns of all kinds.  Elkhonon Goldberg, in his book The Executive Brain, takes this theory one step further.  His concept is called "the novelty-routinisation hypothesis of hemispheric specialisation" and postulates that the difference between the two sides of the brain are to do with the way they manage patterns differently.  His view is that novel experiences are matched by broad pattern recognition talents of the right side of the brain, but as the mind becomes familiar with the new patterns, and gradually learns them, the job of pattern recognition is passed to the left side of the brain where they are stored as very specific patterns attached to very individual meanings or objects.  This makes the left hemisphere of the brain  the "routinisation" half where Herbert Simon's learnt patterns are stored and used.  In this hemisphere the patterns are very specific, and defined, such as patterns to recognise a friend's face, or a favorite chair.   Goldberg thinks this is why words, with their very specific meanings, are stored in left side. 
The patterns stored in the left hand side of the brain are effortlessly used, as when we meet a friend we do not have to think "who is that guy?".    In the Right hemisphere visio-spatial concepts reside, and broad rough patterns that will decide how to think about a novel pattern are stored.  The first stage of dealing with a novel experience is to ask broad questions, often consciously,  What sort of furniture is this?  Is this an animal, what sort of animal is it?    Goldberg's view of how mentalese chimes with my intuitive experience of how I learn to draw.  Most evenings I do hours of exercises learning to recognise and draw patterns I think I may be seeing on faces (I draw moving faces on television).  I am very conscious that this process gradually translates into remembering, conjoining, storing and then reproducing the complex patterns, often in three dimensions.  Learning to draw, for me, has been a process of investigation of novel unknown patterns which is followed by accumulation of effortlessly known patterns that can later be called up and utilised effortlessly.
Patterns which are well understood and remembered have plasticity.  We need to work on the Smiley face to show you what I mean by plasticity.  The Smiley we ended up with at the end of the first letter was an idealised pattern that has had peak shift applied to it.  In the real world we never meet a Smiley, the pattern it is a fantasy abstraction produced by a process that might be part of making works of "art".  In everyday life, on real faces, we come across real Smiley's that are all sorts of shapes; there are long, thin, round or lopsided faces with long, thin, round and lopsided Smiley patterns on them.  Inside the Smiley patterns there are always two eyes and a mouth that changes shape.  The mind, especially the right hemisphere, can handle this plasticity of pattern.
If mentalese is going to be useful it has to be flexible enough to deal with variable patterns, but weed out patterns that have superficial similarities. Here is a demonstration:
Plasticity is limited by rules.  The mouth cannot be set vertically between the eyes. To be a mouth, has to sit within the context of the ever-changing plastic pattern shapes.  This is how context and plasticity work together, it is part of the grammar of mentalese.
And when we add a new mark to a Smiley many interesting options are available, for instance in this series of faces the same mark has been put in different parts of the Smiley face. 

When it is in the right position to be a nose - it winks back "I am a Nose"  you can even put the mark the other way up, and it still winks back "I am a Nose".   If the mark is to the side of the face the eye becomes confused and does not know what to make of it, it is usually ignored.  If the mark is near the mouth it miraculously starts winking back "I am a tongue licking the smiley's lips".   One really interesting point to note about this demonstration is that the position of the mark seems to be more important than the shape of the mark.  Art classes that ask students to studiously record the shape of things to be drawn really miss the point about how drawings work. 
So the patterns used by mentalese have plasticity as well as rigid rules about context of marks inside the plastic pattern.  Then there is one more layer of plasticity.  The nose itself has plasticity.  It can be big and flat, or small and sharp
Isn't this a wonderful system?; so flexible and yet so rigid.  Drawing is a magic expressive world that lives on the boundaries of the language of recognition used by the mind.
To show you what I mean by the magic expressive world that lives on the boundaries of recognition used by the mind I have made this little stickman illustration.  Look how I am dancing on the magic boundary.  The stickman is the pattern we all know and understand well.  The rules are things like the hands have five fingers at the end of a long rods which are the arms which are attached to the trunk of the body. 
My stickman is running trying to catch a ball, and I have used the allowable plasticity of  patterns to stretch the length of the arms to be much longer than they are in real life.    But to keep mentalese happy I have retained context; the hands, even though they are in a place that would be impossible in real life, are still in the correct context within the plastic pattern.  Even though they are in a place where the hands never could be in real life, by keeping our  mentalese grammar correct, they are still seen as hands belonging to the boy.   So the pattern is distorted beyond anything that happens in real life, like the peak shift Smiley's is grin is beyond anything we meet in real life. They both work because they both obey the rules of patterns that mentalese uses.
It may seem to you that I am not really writing about drawing.  You may say this is all the stuff of cartoons.  So to end I am adding one more drawing of a dancer.  The arms are again extended, like they might be in a cartoon.  Every drawing, whether it is by Michelangelo or your newspaper cartoonist, is dancing on this boundary between the world of mentalese and real life experience

Best Wishes

PS You may wish to attack my ideas, or add your own thoughts?  Please let me know your opinions by email
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