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Heightened Perceptions

Emily Troscianko

Images by Jolyon Troscianko

Time seems obvious: the thing there’s never enough of, the thing that marches on relentlessly, on every scale from minutes to years. But is it so straightforward? Just think of all the ways we use to talk about time. Common metaphors for time make it into something moving towards you (‘the event passed without incident’), a landscape you move through (‘Christmas was looming on the horizon’), a pursuer (‘time was catching up with us’), a moving object (‘we were behind schedule’), a resource/money (‘she spends her time wisely’), a container (‘he managed a lot in two minutes’), a changer (‘time the great healer’)… It seems to be the grand abstraction we can only think of in terms of something else.


I’ve already leapt from talking about time to talking about how we talk about time. One reasonable way of approaching time is through the ways in which we, given all our human limitations, make sense of it – indeed arguably this is the only way. And this approach has pedigree in other contexts: after millennia of philosophical arguments about free will, there’s more research happening now on whether and why we feel like we have free will: what factors affect that feeling and how.


So, how do our minds process time? And how might works of art alter or reveal aspects of how we do so? The cliché is that linguistic art has a temporal extent while pictorial art is a single moment frozen out of time, but that’s easy to find exceptions to: a haiku, say, or an impressionist painting of a stormy sea. I know more about the interesting games literature plays with time, so I’ll be giving examples primarily from literature to try and prod us into thinking about how time unfolds, if that’s what it does, while engaging with works of art in any medium.


We meet an instant stumbling block, though: generally we don’t have as much insight as we’d like to think into how our minds work. A lot of my research has been about the convergences and divergences between the cognitive realities (how our minds actually work), the folk psychology (how we think they do), and the way cognition is evoked in works of art (specifically literary ones). The framework I’ve come up with for considering these interactions is cognitive realism. A work of art is cognitively realistic in one area of cognition (say, memory) if it evokes that faculty in a way that corresponds to how it operates in our minds. It’s not better to be cognitively realistic than unrealistic, and a single work could be cognitively realistic and unrealistic in different respects. The interesting thing about identifying these (un)realisms is that they let us make predictions about audience responses – especially when we bring in folk psychology as the third pole in the constellation, since as we’ll see, the realities and the intuitions often diverge.


Folk psychology (‘what people think’ about how their minds work) is something we don’t know nearly enough about, but ordinary language use (like the kinds of conceptual metaphors we considered at the start) can often be a helpful source of clues. So can our responses to statements or phenomena that fit or counter our expectations (e.g. if something surprises you, that’s a pretty good indication you thought otherwise).


One aspect of the mind which obviously links visual art and literary art is visual perception: we use our visual systems to look at visual art, and to read text on pages or screens; we read about characters in books, and look at characters on canvas or in sculptures or photos, who are engaging visually with their surroundings or other figures; and we engage in acts of visual imagination in response to both. Visual perception and visual mental imagery are known to be linked neurally and behaviourally: you get similar patterns of activation in the early visual pathway (specifically primary visual cortex) when seeing and imagining something, and eye movements are also similar for the two; even the thickness of the lens of the eye seems to change equivalently when imagining something close up or far away.


The structures of perceptual engagement through time are interesting. The standard scientific view (which as it happens coincides with the standard folk-psychological view) is that we take in information from the world which ends up as an image on the retina, the information is transmitted up the optic nerve to the brain, and there it’s used to build up a neural representation of what we’re seeing: a detailed (hyper-Realist) picture of the world. In a basic sense, this sequence is obviously true, but the problem comes with the role of the representation.












Various conceptual problems are raised by the notion that a representation of what is being seen (the percept) is responsible for our seeing it. First, what is the information in the representation doing? For what or whom is anything being represented? We risk having to create some ‘mind’s-eye function’ to read off what’s on the display (a function actually described in those scare-quoted in the traditional scientific account). This is the so-called ‘homuncular fallacy’. And if I have a little man in my head looking at my display, doesn’t he need one in his head looking at his? The homunculus leads also to an infinite regress: pushing back and back the point at which anything is actually explained. The other conceptual barrier relates to what’s known as the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness: why neural activity should give rise to conscious experience at all. No one has a solution to this problem (or a completely convincing explanation of why it isn’t really a problem), but the ‘pictorialist’ view of vision comes up against it particularly violently.


There are also reasons to question this account that come from our experience itself – not least its temporal structures. The pictorialist account entails that we build up information about a scene gradually, through successive eye movements, to create that detailed representation. But seeing doesn’t feel like that. We feel we come into a room and just see it, all at once, even if we can’t possibly have had time to look at it all. We also tend to see in far less detail than this account would suggest: the widely researched phenomenon of change blindness confronts us with the extent to which we are happy with gaps, even gaps where we would assume there couldn’t be. Surprise comes back here: you’re surprised when a change-blindness demo works and you don’t see the salient thing that changes. That is, your intuitions tell you: that’s really obvious, I should definitely have noticed that. We all have ‘change blindness blindness’: lack of insight into the gappiness of our visual experiences.


An alternative is to take an interactive, action- rather than representation-based view, in which seeing means having knowledge of the relationships in play between you and what you’re looking at – in which you know, at the lowest level of visual features, what will change in your visual input if you or the object moves in a certain way, knowledge built up over a lifetime’s worth of experiences of seeing through exploration of the environment. You can’t get rid of neural representation of what is being seen altogether (you still need to know where to look, so you don’t start from scratch with each eye movement), but an interactive (‘enactive’, or ‘sensorimotor’) account gives us a better way of acknowledging the nonlinearities in experience, including seeing without having had time to look and looking without seeing, and the indeterminacies in experience: much less detail is needed than we tend to think for us to operate reliably in the world. 


This way of thinking also allows us to better appreciate the role of potentiality – the flipside of indeterminacy: the fact that we have no need to build up a detailed representation of the world because the world is always there for us to look again if we need to. The world is its own representation; we don’t need another one. There has been some debate about how this model of vision applies to the imaginative case (is the exploration actual or can it remain potential?), but there seems to be something experientially right about this idea of indeterminacy, and specifically the idea that we know it’s there without having to look. Potential access means we don’t always feel the need to make use of that potential and actually fill in the gaps, actually look. 


For me all this is brilliantly illustrated by the opening of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. We get extremely little detail about the details of the room in which the protagonist, K., wakes up to an inexplicable arrest, and yet nothing seems lacking, because we are given the requisite detail at the point when it becomes relevant to the character to interact with it. This cognitive realism of perception is in sharp contrast to the 19th-century Realist mode of description, in which we might get 10 pages about the bedroom before anything actually happens. This assumes that the imagination works ‘pictorially’: that the more detail we’re given, the better mental pictures we’ll be able to paint. But ease with gaps and with the knowledge that we could fill them if we wanted to may do better justice to the realities of how we engage with real and fictional worlds.


Nonetheless, gap-filling is a crucial part of our mental landscape, and we get uneasy when we realise there are gaps that we should have filled but didn’t, or when we feel gap-filling is being too obviously obstructed. Kafka’s characters often get uneasy about missing things that should seemingly be obvious, and resolving to do better, be more attentive, in future – even though this is just how perception is. For us as readers, the basic cognitive realism may often prevent us realising how little we’re actually getting, but sometimes there’s something that confronts us forcefully, or subtly, with the need to work out a gap-filling story, or with the difficulty of doing so – whether that’s through a shift of perspective that pulls out the rug from under us as regards the subjective or objective status of some aspect of the fictional world, or a textual gap that remains stubbornly unfillable. Cognitive realism in this case has two faces: it’s compelling because it corresponds to the cognitive realities, but it’s also unsettling because it goes so firmly against our intuitions.

Colour phi demo 


What do you see?

Please click on the link above. It leads you to an illustration of the old and familiar illusion called the Phi Phenomenon. As you probably know, the moving ball is really a static ball presented in sequence, first on the left and then on the right, even though it appears like one ball moving across the screen. The principle behind this phenomenon lies behind all the moving pictures you see on any screen, whether at the cinema, on tv or on your computer screen now.


But if you see a moving dot that changes from green to red as it moves, how do you know it is going to be red before it ‘gets there’? This example has been used by the philosopher Daniel Dennett to argue (as part of his ‘multiple drafts’ theory of consciousness) that subjective experience is a story we tell after the fact. There is no fact of the matter about any moment of experience until we probe it in a particular way, afterwards: whether by asking a question or performing a task. One consequence of this is that the idea of ‘now’ in my experience starts to slip away.


Try asking yourself ‘what am I conscious of now?’, and you might find (especially if you do it often over days and weeks) that you stop being sure what the question means, or what counts as now, or how you could ever get close enough to now to find out. People who do a lot of meditating often find that while the effort at first is to be ‘in the now’, at some point now stops seeming to exist. So maybe there’s nothing there at all at ‘the moment of experience’; maybe all that we ever do is create retrospective accounts of something about which there was, before we did so, no single truth. So then every experience is always already a memory.


Remembering the past and imagining the future are much more similar than we thought, and perhaps there’s nothing substantial in between them. We use language to make narratives that spatialise time, turn it into something comprehensible, but maybe that’s all they are: stories after the non-fact. This is rather like dreaming, where it’s usually very obvious that the story we make up on waking is just one of many stories we could have chosen – hence maybe why Kafka’s work is so often described as dreamlike. Maybe trying to inquire into your experience is like trying to open the fridge to see what the darkness looks like.


So some art may help us explore the many things we find uncomfortable and baffling and intriguing about time. Maybe this is one of the reasons that time can simply pass so differently when we’re reading a novel – though I’ve never had it happen with a painting. Have you? Do you think any of the reasons you seek out any kind of art have anything to do with the passing, or not passing, of time, and how you try to make sense of it?










Dr Emily Troscianko is a member of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford. Her research addresses the intersections between mental health and reading fiction. She writes a regular blog on eating disorders

Her most recent book is Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition, coedited with Michael Burke

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