Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Stripping Away Meaning

Last August, I discussed the contents of my post "Can Psychology Help Us Draw?" with Glyn Humphreys, head of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford. We talked about the way that certain techniques help the artist to concentrate on the shape of an object, ignoring what they "know" it should look like. Glyn called this "stripping away meaning". It's a good phrase, and I suggest that it should be adopted.

Here are the techniques for stripping away meaning that I mentioned in that post:

Negative space. This refers to the space around and between objects. Many artists train themselves concentrate on this space so that they can see the shapes of the objects inside it more accurately. Here are some short articles about it: "Figure/Ground Relationship" by Alice Taylor; "See Like an Artist: negative space" by Jay Alders; "art stuff - negative space and the left brain" by Kathy Hebert; and "Hand Drawing Demo #6: Reviewing Left Brain/Right Brain" by Anne Bobroff-Hajal.

Inversion. There are drawing exercises in which one copies inverted images in order to focus attention on shape. Here are two typical articles about this: "Upside down Drawing and Contour Drawing" by "Davy"; and "Day #031 - Drawing Picasso’s Igor Stravinsky Upside Down" by "Neelima". It occurred to me that psychologists have used inverting spectacles in experiments on the adaptability of vision. Could they help us draw? It should be possible to program image inversion into Google Glass.

Blind drawing. This is drawing without looking at the paper. Some artists use it to improve hand-eye coordination, or to make themselves aware of what's actually seen rather than some symbolic stereotype for it — i.e. to strip away meaning once more. The following articles explain these: "Blind Contour Drawing: A Classic Drawing Exercise" by Helen South; and "Blind Contour Drawing: Drawing by Touch" by Carol Rosinski; and "If You Don’t Begin Blind Contour Drawing Now, You’ll Hate Yourself Later.". By the way, the third article refers to Kimon Nicolaïdes, whose book The Natural Way to Draw advocated blind drawing.

Cold water in the ear. A strange idea, but one mentioned in the paper "Spatial- and verbal-memory improvement by cold-water caloric stimulation in healthy subjects", by D.Bächtold, T.Baumann, P.S.Sándor, M.Kritos, M.Regard, and P.Brugger. The authors say that putting cold water in subjects' left ear sped up their recall of object locations, while water in the right ear sped up recognition of words. They suggest that the stimulation activates structures in the opposite hemisphere, speeding up cognitive processes there. But it seems this is not likely to be useful. Glyn told me that the effect is too short-lived to be any use. It also causes nystagmus.

Transcranial stimulation. I posted about this in "Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation and the Curled-Cat and Bristly-Scottie Drawings of Allan Snyder's Subjects". Snyder applied strong magnetic fields to his subjects' brains, to test the hypothesis that the extraordinary skills shown by savants could be induced in normal people by simulating the savants' brain impairments. Drawings done under TMS are shown on page 4 of the research paper. It seems to me that the cats and dogs drawn under TMS by subjects "N.R." and "A.J." are less naïve, artistically speaking, than those drawn normally, and that the effect is big enough to be worth investigating further. Glyn also thought it worth following up.

Monday, 5 January 2015

An argument that visual memory can, in principle, be improved

My last two posts were "From 'I cannot mentally visualise' to 'god what a taste of fire'" and "'Attention restores forgotten items to visual short-term memory'". To me, the second answers a question that the first poses. Namely, is it possible in principle to improve visual memory?

The research by Stokes and colleagues described in the second article shows that visual memory is affected by attention, and that memory for specific items can be improved thereby. But we can consciously manipulate our attention. Therefore, we can in principle improve visual memory even though we may not be able to consciously change its storage capacity. Of course, the improvement might not be large enough to be useful. I'd welcome comments from experts.

From "I cannot mentally visualise" to "god what a taste of fire"

All artists want a better memory. In The inside story of Viz, Chris Donald says of co-cartoonist Graham Drury:

Graham had an uncanny ability to draw anything at all, entirely from memory. He was a graphic reference library. For example, a cry would go up of, 'Graham, What does an Anglican bishop's hat look like from the back?' and he'd draw one instantly.

But not everyone is as lucky as Graham, as the thread "I cannot mentally visualize." on Metafilter shows. (In case the site disappears, I've archived it in the Wayback Machine.) Discussion was kicked off by "gibbsjd77" saying that until he was 15, he'd never realised that other people could visualise things. Because he can't: he can't see his mother's face, a lemon, a house. It was only when discussing it with a friend that he realised some people can clearly see things in their minds.

Other posters suggested methods for improving visualisation. But then Dan Schmidt writing as "dfan" retorted:

And let me back up gibbsjd77 here - for all the people trying to help us build up our skill with visualization exercises or something, it doesn't help; our brains just don't work that way. It's like suggesting to someone with no arms that he should lift weights.

But is that really so? Right at the end of the thread, user "fritillary" contradicted dfan's experience:

I adamantly disagree that visualization is a 'got it or not' skill. Two years ago, I was in your place exactly... I couldn't summon colors, lines, even my own face at will. Growing up I never had mental or sensory imagery. Every bit of my thinking was done in words and numbers. [...] Now I see images and feel body-flashes all the time. No lie, it has been exceedingly difficult to get this far. When you seem to lack every possible starting component, it's like asking a seahorse to skateboard. [...] The rewards are astounding though. The closest thing I can think of is learning a second language... but it's so much better than that! It's a whole new way to THINK. I've put myself through the wringer to learn and I am a different, happier, more complex person because of it. It was months before I saw any results, but god what a taste of fire.

Fritillary went on to suggest things that might help: recalling one's dreams; lucid dreaming; meditating to build concentration; working with one's hands; taking art classes; drawing with one's left hand or one's feet. Paying close attention to how objects look and change, and to size, line, value, surface, light, texture. Asking oneself questions such as "Where is this orange in relation to that one over there? Where do they both lie in my visual field? How is this shade of red different from that one? If I rotated this orange 90 degrees to the left, how would it look?"

And, making visual imagery one's only mental language:

Arm yourself with questions in the thought-systems you know (language, music, touch, taste), but don't let yourself answer in anything but sight! If you start thinking in words push them away. Build your memory: look at a orange, look away, try to recall. Repeat. Repeat. Do the same with every visual scene in front of you until you can see afterimages. Try imagining objects in new positions, add features that don't exist. Set up Rube Goldbergs. Compare and contrast. Work your way from hazy generalities to clear microdetail.

But has this really worked? A neurologist I discussed it with pointed out that Fritillary's new abilities had not been objectively tested. She might only believe her powers of visualisation have increased. So is it worth spending time on the kind of exercises Fritillary did?

Sunday, 4 January 2015

"Attention restores forgotten items to visual short-term memory"

If you have seen something briefly and you want to sketch it from memory, scan your remembered visual field about a second after seeing it, paying attention to the parts most important to your drawing. This will help fix them in memory. That's what I conclude from "Research Briefing: Attention restores forgotten items to visual short-term memory", a posting by Mark Stokes in his Brain Box blog.

Mark is head of the Attention Group at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity. To quote from the Attention Group's home page:

Our everyday view of the world is necessarily biased: we focus our attention on information that is most relevant to our current goals, and ignore behaviourally irrelevant information. Without such bias, we would be lost in a world of information-overload, unable to accomplish even the simplest tasks.

One of the faculties this applies to is memory. The brain receives too much visual information to remember it all, so has to choose what to remember. Previous research has suggested, according to Mark's post, that paying attention to information in visual short-term memory helps one maintain it, in the same way that repeating a phone number to oneself helps one remember that. But the paper that's the subject of his post goes further. Paying attention to items sometimes restores them to memory even when they seem to have been forgotten. This may be because they were originally stored in a format in which they couldn't be retrieved. Paying attention to them converts them into a retrievable format.

The experiments that suggest this are described in "Attention Restores Discrete Items to Visual Short-Term Memory" by Alexandra M. Murray, Anna C. Nobre, Ian A. Clark, André M. Cravo and Mark G. Stokes, in Psychological Science published online 22 February 2013. Here's my cartoon summary of them:

(Apologies for the rough drawing, which I did with a mouse.)

In the first shot, the subject is shown a screenful of little coloured arrows in various orientations. In the last, the subject is given a "memory probe". This is a coloured arrow in the same position on the screen as it was before, but in a different orientation. The subject is asked to rotate it back to the original orientation, thereby testing their memory.

Where does the effect of attention come in? In some of the experiments, subjects were shown a "cue" as in the second shot: a small square that pops up somwehere on the screen. In these experiments, subjects showed more accuracy in the third shot than if the cue had not been given. As Mark says in his posting:

We combined behavioural and psychophysical approaches to show that attention, directed to memory items about one second after they had been presented, increases the discrete probability of recall, rather than a more perceptual improvement in the precision of recall judgements [...]

Full details of the experiments, and of the authors' conclusions, are given in the paper. What the research suggests to me is that if I'm trying to draw someone who I've only seen briefly, perhaps a person who has just walked past, then about a second after seeing them, I should deliberately scan my remembered visual field. And I should pay attention to those regions of it where I think the most salient details for my drawing are.