The Psychology of Communication


7.3 The Mind Movie

There was a two-day graduation party in California for a friend. I was taking many photographs to build a souvenir album. I ran out of color film, borrowed some black-and-white film, and continue taking pictures with more abandon, since the film is cheaper. I ran out of black-and-white film, but continued with even more abandon with the empty camera. (It is now the afternoon of the second day!) Since there is not any record of the shots, I decide to abandon the camera and take shots simply by blinking. Suddenly I realized that there was little point in taking stills when I had a continuous movie going and - blinking no more - I sat back to enjoy the movie.

Every one of us is running a magnificent mobile movie studio of a mind, with wide-angle screen, stereophonic sound, Technicolor, and cast of thousands (but only one hero), in which we are producer, director, script-writer, camera person, sound engineer, stage manager, crew - and the movie critic who reviews the performance next morning! This movie studio also doubles as a movie theatre, in which we can simultaneously watch the show. The only limitation is that, in the movie theatre of the mind, there is only one seat. In order to show your home movies to other people, you have to learn to write, to speak, to play music, to make films. Some of us earn reputations for being good at showing our home movies, using a particular medium, and are thus recognized as artists. However, we are all artists in the sense that we all try, by some means or another, to invite other people in to see our home movies.

I spent four years with J. J. Gibson while a graduate student at Cornell University between 1961 and 1965 and never understood what he was talking about. Yet he was one of the most important influences in my life. He was very excited about something (whatever it was) and I wanted to share this excitement. Ten years later, at that California party, I began to understand what he had been talking about.

Our visual world is built out of this "Mind Movie" which we are running in the magnificent mobile mind studio and viewing in the mind theatre. "Mobile" is a important feature of this studio. Now I understand why J. J. used to chuckle when the tachistoscope arrived in the department and every graduate student suddenly realized that their research required this new tool. It enabled us to fix the subject in a chin-rest staring down a tunnel where we could systematically and accurately present stimuli and measure precisely their response. A person discovers the real world by moving around in it - moving the body with respect to the environment, the head with respect to the body and the eyes with respect to the head. This was his theory [GIBSON J 1966, 1979]. By preventing the subject from moving the body, the head and the eyes, we were able to conduct a very controlled experiment but we could not learn anything about how s/he learned about the real world. It was street-lamp research, named in honor of the drunk who dropped his key in his house and went to look for it under the street-lamp because the light was better there. The light may be better there but it is not where the key is.

The visual field (J. J's name for the single frame in this movie - see Figure 7-3) could be very complex, if it contained many people and things, to which the person has multiple cognitive and emotional associations. Some German researchers simplified the visual field by building a Ganzfeld (German for whole field) consisting of a six-foot translucent sphere. A subject sitting in the centre of this sphere would have the total retina equally stimulated. Julien Hochberg, another perception theorist at Cornell University, with typical Yankee ingenuity, built the pocket Ganzfeld by cutting a ping-pong ball in half and placing the two halves over the eyes of the subject. The first step towards making the Ganzfeld more complex was to draw a dot on the sphere or ping-pong ball. The subject recognized this as a figure on a ground. This figure-ground relationship is the basic perceptual experience. When a blind patient has cataracts removed and sees for the first time, this is what he sees. He does not immediately reach up after the bandages are removed and embrace his sweetheart, as in Hollywood movies. He could not distinguish his sweetheart from his doctor or his bedside table. But he knows there is something there.

This figure-ground perception is so basic that it is impossible not to see any image as a figure on a ground. An image, in which what is figure and what is ground is ambiguous, alternatives between the two. One such reversible figure is presented in Figure 7-4. If you stare at the image, you will see it alternating between a young woman and an old woman.

In 1989, Christine Davet, Hal Thwaites, and I organized a conference on Three-dimensional Media Technology. In an opening speech, I said: "Since this is a conference on the third dimension, we have decided to invite only three-dimensional speakers, hold it (as you can see) in a three-dimensional room, serve drinks in three-dimensional glasses and food on three-dimensional plates." The point is that the real world, the world we live in, is three dimensional. Look around you - check for yourself - don't take my world for it! We live in a three-dimensional world and the eye is therefore designed to perceive objects in 3D. Adding this third dimension of depth to the current two-dimensional movie is the next logical step toward a more accurate representation of the world-as-we-perceive-it in our everyday experience. The movie metaphor is apt because film is the medium which perhaps, of all the media, best captures the full quality of our personal maps of experience. Indeed, the history of film could be considered as a series of steps towards a closer approximation of the mind movie. Movies added movement to the still image of the photograph, the talkies added sound and color was added to the black-and-white image.

There are a number of ways of adding to film technology to bring it closer to the mind movie. One technology is high-definition television (HDTV), which provides improved picture resolution. With HDTV the aspect ratio of the TV screen is closer to that of the eye than with conventional television. The IMAX film format comes even closer to our mind movie by removing the artificial frame around the image. The IMAX screen is so large that it fills most of our visual field. The OMNIMAX screen, even bigger and curved at the edges, does this even more effectively. Though it does not remove the border, the IMAX/OMNIMAX format allows it to be replaced by the more natural oval border of the eye as it takes a snapshot of the world.4

Progression is, of course, not necessarily progress. Many will resist this next step, just as many in the past resisted the introduction of movies, talkies, and color.5 Many people certainly resist the retroactive introduction of color to films originally shot in black-and-white. Whatever the arguments mustered by critics of colorization (and there are many good ones), the idea that black and white is somehow more natural, is totally unfounded. There is nothing natural about black-and-white unless you are totally color-blind.6 The same argument applies to two-dimensional images, which are as artificial as black-and-white images. 2-D representations of our 3-D world are cultural artifacts. This is demonstrated by anthropological studies in which people, who have no previous experience of photographs and paintings, have trouble interpreting them.

4   Despite all those innovations, the resolution is not as good as our eyes. Julien Winfield, one of my students who helped me with the edutainment section of the CD-ROM to accompany the movie Rob Roy, told me the following story. He was working long hours staring at a screen in a beach house in Santa Cruz. As his attention drifted to the view of the Santa Cruz beach in the picture window behind his screen, he was astonished at the great resolution on that "screen". When he started however to try to get his cursor on some passing cloud to edit the image, he realized that it was time to quit.

5   I once interviewed the famous Director of Photography, Walter Lassalay, on the beach where he had filmed Zorba the Greek. He complained that the wide-angle screen was a disastrous innovation for those who considered movies to be about people. We thus need an aspect ratio which is more portrait than landscape. Cinemascope was for making movies about people lying down. 6   A voice-over on some early black-and-white footage in a documentary on the life of Richard Nixon earnestly informed us that of course, in those days, the world was black-and-white, people did not talk and they moved very quickly.