2009 Honors Day Address: Michael Kolster

Story posted May 06, 2009

Gorillas in Our Midst: The Big Picture Problem and the Value of Knowing That We Don't Always Know
by Assistant Professor of Art Michael Kolster
May 6, 2009

Good evening and congratulations, students. It is great to be here with you tonight. I speak for the faculty when I say we are very proud and excited. Proud of your achievements and excited to witness the great things you will contribute to the world in the coming years.

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Michael Kolster

I want to offer tonight some brief thoughts about what I call the Big Picture Problem, which refers to the challenge of seeing and responding to a changing world.

The problem, as I see it, is that whenever we think we have figured things out, the world has already shifted, often rendering our theories incomplete and forcing us to look again at what surrounds us, at what we no longer know.

So, tonight's talk is devoted to exploring the value of knowing that we don't always know, which must be considered alongside one fact we know for sure: that our time here as individuals is limited, that we don't live forever, which imbues the choices we make each day with profound significance.

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Spontaneous motion illusion courtesy of the University of Maryland

We need to be honest about the fact that we do not know what may happen minute to minute, let alone in a year or a decade hence. When we embrace this uncertainty, when we are mindful of how much we don't know, we are positioned to see more clearly the world immediately around us and less likely to allow habitual and possibly outmoded responses to cloud our judgments.

Being aware of the limits of our knowledge is the basis for remaining curious, and being curious is the first step to empathy. Empathy is a form of understanding that supersedes knowledge. It allows us to forgive ourselves and others when mistakes occur and allows us to forge meaningful connections to others. In my mind empathy, the kind that flows directly from an open and engaged curiosity about the world, is the foundation of what we call the common good.

So, as you know, I am a photographer and teach in the Visual Arts Department here at Bowdoin. Many people ask, what the heck do you teach? Everyone knows how to take pictures. What could you possibly talk about in your classes? Well, tonight you'll get a glimpse of that, and as you might expect, I will be using some visual aids to get us through it.

Take a look at these sentences and read them over.

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Courtesy: eChalk Optical Illusions

I probably didn't need to ask you to read this text. I am sure you had already started in as soon as it appeared. We seek to find patterns in what our eyes perceive and written words present for the literate a compelling invitation to interpret their meanings. Much as we cannot resist tending to a crying baby, we jump on a string of letters to see if we can make sense of them.

These two sentences indicate that our perception of an event is often significantly affected by our past experience and expectations. This means that much of the time what we see is often not the only thing that is actually there. What we tend to perceive is the degree to which what we see matches what we have previously encountered.

These sentences of garbled letters present good evidence that our past experience comes in handy when certain details don't conform to what we expect, as long as the general shape of their content can still be recognized. This is a testament to our ability to see and interpret the world in a flexible manner, especially when we are drawing from deeply ingrained patterns of thought, in this case our ability, as literate individuals, to perceive patterns from letters arranged to suggest words.

Take a look at this sentence — read it just once and count the number of times the letter "F" appears in the sentence. Again read it just once. Look away when you are done and wait for others to finish — no cheating.

How many Fs are there? How many counted three? Four? Five? Six?
There are 6 Fs. Usually the majority of people count 3 Fs, probably due to how the word "of" is not perceived as a word with the letter F. Most perceive the word "of" as a singular entity, not actually comprising letters, but something different, akin to the sound of the letter "V."

We "see" six Fs here, but we perceive a few of them as something else. We are told that seeing is believing, which implies that our sense of the world comes from what we see and that our beliefs spring from those observations, which of course is very much the way we form and assess many of our initial ideas about the world.

Yet what can we do on those occasions that our sight turns out to be a concoction of what we expect to see rather than what is actually there? Isn't it true that at times, and more than we'd like to admit, our belief in how things have been define how we expect them to be?

These expectations modulate our perceptions and can blind us to changing circumstances. I find it troubling to think of how much our older, established habits of thought might influence and possibly distort our current perceptions and thus hinder our ability to see clearly the changes our world undergoes minute to minute, day to day. And of course without a clear vision of a changing world our ability to devise new and useful ideas about it is brought into serious doubt.

Now I want to show you a 30-second video. In it you find six people divided into two teams. Three people are wearing white T-shirts, while the other three are wearing black. Each team has a basketball that they are passing to members of their team. Your task is to count the number of passes made by the team wearing the white T-shirts. You should know that one gender is has proven to be more perceptive.

Watch the video here.

So, how many times did the ball pass between the people wearing the white T-shirts? And did you notice anything else unusual?

Some of you might have, but important to note is that typically over half that view this video do not see the gorilla moving through the group, though most do well counting the passes, regardless of gender. My mention of how one gender was better than the other was a misdirection, a head fake to make you count more carefully.

If this audience tonight is typical of most, and, despite the awards being handed out later, I believe it is, upwards of half of you still don't believe a gorilla was in our midst.

So, I need to ask, if you did not see it, do you believe me when I tell you that it was there? Replaying the video would confirm its presence, but, as you know, we cannot replay moments in our lives, so we are forced move on.

Take a look at this image. Pay attention to the strips of grey running horizontally across the middle of it. Compare their values. Do any of you believe that the grey strips on the left are the same brightness as the strips on the right? We all would have to agree that the group on the left appears lighter than the right. Let's look at a couple different images that gradually remove the black vertical lines.

You can see now that the strips are the same value, yet it is hard to believe how powerfully our perception of them was directly affected by what surrounded them.

Of course, this points out how dependent our perception is upon context, that what we see and then go on to believe is highly influenced by what surrounds the object of our attention.

Most interesting to me is that after I know the grey strips are the same tone and, when I see them again surrounded by the black vertical stripes they still appear to have different brightnesses. My knowledge that they are the same value does not overrule my perception of their difference. So, for all intents and purposes, are the grey stripes different brightnesses? Here they are different. Here they are not.

This anomaly presents an opportunity to hold two contradictory ideas in our minds simultaneously. The grey strips are the same and yet viewed from another perspective they are different! Embracing a paradox like this is an opportunity to widen the scope of our understanding, to enlarge our Big Picture, which when effective, rewards our curiosity with an expanded sense of what is possible and reflects a more dynamic framing of the uncertain world we live in.

There are probably a few of you out there that are very pleased with yourselves. You saw the gorilla, you counted six Fs and you might even have figured out how to narrow your vision to see that the grey strips were of comparable brightness.

For you and the rest of us, I present this image. Count the black dots.

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Black dot illusion courtesy of the University of Maryland

What number do you come up with? Over time, much as you might protest, 35 black dots do reveal themselves. Seven rows by five columns equals 35. Never mind that as you focus on the intersections of the lines the black dots disappear. Don't let anyone tell you that those black dots aren't there. Like much in life, they are elusive yet persist in making their presence known.

Seeing the big picture requires negotiating constantly with what we know and what we come to expect. And, most important, the Big Picture acknowledges that our perception of the world can at times be at odds with what we know, and conversely what we know is not always an accurate reflection of how we feel or what we sense.

Most of us trained in the Liberal Arts appreciate the value of context and how an exposure to different perspectives, while at times confusing, can infuse a larger sense of purpose into the particular paths we choose to pursue. And an education in the liberal arts is probably the best means to develop an appreciation for the big picure and the paradoxes it contains.

All of us need to acknowledge that there are moments in our lives when what we see and feel simply does not match with what we know — and that we need to weigh very carefully the choices we make in their midst.

Knowing comes from experience and a careful comparison between what has been and what is now. But, in order to see clearly what is now, we must set aside some of what we know and accept with open eyes things that we might not recognize.

This balance of knowing and not knowing is called curiosity. This balance must be managed throughout our lives; all that we accomplish and contribute to society flows from it.

Curiosity presupposes that others looking in the same direction might be seeing and thinking something completely different. Curiosity for how others see and think about the world frames our Big Picture; knowing that we don't always know nourishes our search for meaning during our short stay on this planet.

Its reward is seeing clearly the complexities and contradictions that connect us to each other.

Lest any of you despair at not having seen the gorilla in our midst, or fear for the fact that many of us can't accurately count the number of times the letter F appears in a sentence, I'd like to end my talk tonight by playing a short song by Laurie Anderson, an American musician and performance artist. Entitled "Walking and Falling," it offers a realistic yet hopeful take on the Big Picture problem and the value of knowing that you don't always know.

Thanks for your attention, congratulations students, and keep your eyes wide open.


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