Tricks of the Mind
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Tricks of the Mind • Posted: Sep 03, 2011 12:33:33Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

You know, when I took this picture I was amused. I was amused because aside from the craziness of the architecture, I saw a face, rather like the front of an automobile resembling a face. It's a trick of the mind, wired into us, in fact. Draw two circles for eyes and a curved line for a smiling mouth on a blank sheet of paper, hold it in front of a newborn baby, and the newborn's eyes will follow it wherever it moves. Do that with a dollar sign or a big X and the baby will hardly take notice.

That isn't the only trick our minds play on us, concluding things from very little evidence. We might call them reflexes or instincts, but they are cognitive predispositions that make us what we are, predispositions that have, over very large scales of time, helped our species to survive the many trials it's faced. We pull back from heat, step back from a drop off, turn up our noses at bad smells, cover our ears against loud noises, salivate over something delicious, become anxious encountering a stranger. But in each case, we're reacting before we've hardly had any time at all to actually analyze the situation, apply what we know and don't know, reason what might be true and what might not be true, consider our options, decide what would truly be in our best interest, both socially and personally.

Complicating our every encounter with things are voices, voices telling us what to think and how to think, how to behave and how not to behave. They may or may not be the same voices a schizophrenic hears, but they most certainly include voices from the TV and radio, from bill boards and movies, from songs sung from stages and iPods, sermons from pulpits, speeches from campaigning politicians and concerned academics, ads of every variety, and from words written on a screen like this. We even hear proddings from our own parents, families, and friends: you should do that; you should buy that; I wouldn't do that if, I were you; don't be like that; when are you going to get off your butt and do something? All those voices provide a layer of mental processing on top of the reflexes nature has provided. And in the meantime, some third part of us is caught in the middle like a ping pong ball being batted back and forth. Who are we, really? What is it we really know? What is it we really think? What is it we'd really like to happen? What is it we can actually afford to do?

Aside from resembling a face, the above image is also a portrait of the individual who lives in that house. And it isn't an opaque portrait. There are numerous values being expressed and numerous decisions that have been made, all layered one upon the other in a kind of montage of personality quite readable to anyone who takes the time to delve into the details, to anyone willing to move past all the dubious wisdom of their own predispositions, reflexes, and echoing voices.

If one looks hard enough, one can see that the owner of that house has skill and a certain pride of craft when it come to the construction trades. He or she may not be an architect, but they know how to put on a roof and how to construct a not so simple portico. They seem to have less experience with stucco, but it's serviceable. The hand rails, left unpainted, are most likely a left-over from a previous owner. And this owner is as yet undecided what to do with them, or perhaps as of yet unable to afford replacing them. The same for the window treatment. There is certainly concern for security, but probably not adequate funds to do what is desired. The yard has been left untouched. A roof that doesn't leak and a door and widows that close and lock have been deemed the most important and have been realized. A bit of fresh paint garners a modicum of social respect for efforts put forth, but all else remaining undone is secondary. Whether any of that secondary stuff will eventually be attended to is perhaps doubtful. Voices and circumstances will inevitably intervene. Whatever voices the owner has heeded invoking a need for bars on windows will undoubtedly insist on other measures long before landscaping and gardening. And those voices will most likely be wrong, because policing research across a number of communities has shone that inviting, well cared for yards invite neighborliness which, in turn, results in safer neighborhoods. Neighbors who are your friends, who have concern for you, will reliably provide more insightful vigilance and protection from crime than bars on windows or a gun under your pillow. That too, is one of our predispositions.

Predispositions, instincts, and all those voices don't always have our best interests in mind. The wisdom they insist upon was, perhaps, appropriate at one time in the past for someone else, but not necessarily for us in the here and now. It is we, that little ping pong ball being batted about inside of us, that must actually decide what is best for us and all we care about.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007
13.8 mm 65 mm
1/320 sec
f 5.6