What is your brain’s best guess?

I recently listened to a Ted talk by Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex – that’s a heck of a title! He invites us to consider the notion that we construct our reality according to our brain’s best guess.

“Imagine being a brain. You’re locked inside a bony skull, trying to figure out what’s going on. All you’ve got to go on is streams of electrical impulses which are only indirectly related to things in the world.

So conscious perception – figuring out what’s there – has to be a process of informed guess work in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its prior expectations and beliefs to form its best guess of what stimulated those signals.

The brain doesn’t hear sound or see light. What we perceive with the conscious mind is its best guess of what’s out there in the world. What this means is the basic background experience of being a unified self is a rather fragile construction of the brain.”

Well, I’m not a neuroscientist but as an artist I experience the best guess; at any one time I know I may not be seeing what’s really there. I’ve just completed a life size double portrait commission in watercolour using two cobbled together photographs – small, slightly blurry snapshots with different lighting. I took it on, inspite of the obvious challenge because I’m up for an art challenge, the money’s always useful and there was a very poignant reason for doing so.

I work realistically at times, I’ve spent years drawing and painting from life and photographs and I’m reasonably confident that I can get a likeness. I’ve done many commissions but this one challenged all my conscious expectations and beliefs.

When we look at things in the world, we scan them and come up with an evaluation to ensure our survival, so I know that when I first look at a very complex image, like a face (especially a small blurry one!), I won’t be seeing it as it really is. It can take up to fifteen minutes of slowing down the mental dialogue with relaxation and breathing, focusing on one small aspect of the visual data and recording it moment by moment, before I activate the perceptual aspect of my brain that is better equipped to see what is really there.

During the portrait process I was profoundly struck by the insistent voice of my survival brain, urging me to give up because “it’s too hard” and, “I’m over it.” I’m very familiar with this voice and it was as compelling as ever but I didn’t engage with it – beyond the odd hissy fit! (Even my supportive husband pronounced one day as I carted the double decker into the living room to get a long view, “can you take that out now, I’m sick of looking at it.”)  I believe we can consciously override the best guess syndrome by recognising and acknowledging it and choosing something else. I’m not saying it’s easy.

I did get an acceptable outcome eventually; I just kept on choosing to turn up at my desk with the intention of seeing what was really there, of consistently overriding my brain’s best guess.

During the challenging portrait process I drew some sheep just for the sheer pleasure of it and to restore the flow!



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