Painting Reality – Out of Sight, Out of Your Mind

Sidi in Soho, Phoebe Foley
Sidi in Soho. Photo by Phoebe Foley

How much of our visual world can be reduced to science – a mechanical byproduct of brain processes? How much of it is influenced by our own interpretation of reality? Is a conscious visual experience any less palpable than a spiritual or subconscious one?

Imagination is defined as: the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful, and the faculty or action of forming new ideas, images, or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. What I struggle with, however, is who defined imagination? Who determined the boundaries within which concepts or external objects are present or perceived versus imagined?

Eben Alexander, an academic neurosurgeon and professor of neurosurgery, has been plagued with these questions for the past seven years. In 2008, Dr. Alexander almost died after contracting a rare strain of meningitis, E. coli bacterial meningitis. The infection left him unresponsive, laying in a comatose state for seven days. During his recovery he recalled, in brilliant detail, not just his exploration of another world while he was “unresponsive” – but a first-hand account of another plane, or extension of reality.

Rubber Bands by Deanna Rizzi
Rubber Bands. Photo by Deanna Rizzi

This near-death experience became the ultimate paradox for Dr. Alexander. He had been taught, during his many years of medical training, that even if a patient claims to have had an encounter of some kind while in a coma, these incidents are pure fantasy. In other words, there is a reasonable medical explanation for any alternate form of consciousness, and reality, is not one of the options. Yet, after he awoke from his coma, the doctor had become the patient – and there was no way for him to deny the realness of his experience.

Untitled. Photo by Phoebe Foley
Apartment iD. Photo by Phoebe Foley

Dr. Alexander wrote a book about his experience titled Proof of Heaven. In it, he contemplates the scientific method and society’s preoccupation with “proof” of an event or phenomenon in order for it to be considered real or legitimate. Without the ability to verify an unexplained occurrence, like the one experienced by Dr. Alexander (i.e., where there was no medical explanation for the things he witnessed while he was unresponsive…), such events do habitually fall outside the confines of science and into the realm of fantasy, delusion or hallucination. But, things get complicated when the crazy patient also happens to be a neurosurgeon.

Interestingly, in Dr. Alexander’s case, many of his colleagues dismissed his account because they didn’t believe his brain was capable of creating such experiences due to his illness – not because they could disprove it.

What intrigued me about this story, with respect to photography, is the concept of a “recognized” or scientifically accepted visual world. An approved version of reality. One that is synonymous with conscious sight only. And one that demands a specific kind of brain activity for it to be considered real.

Perception. Photo by John Braiman
Perception. Photo by John Braiman

Most people have heard the myth that humans use only 10% of their brain. In truth, on any given day, we activate or use 100% of our brain. We just don’t know all of the intricate details involved with complex behaviors (i.e., consciousness) yet – which has probably fueled some of the misconceptions. Put another way, there is a lot we still don’t know with respect to how the brain functions, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being used. It just means we don’t know what it’s doing or how it’s doing it most of the time! Especially when it comes to the conscious and subconscious mind.

Which leads me to believe there is no real way to define what is real versus what is imagined. Sound crazy?

2X. By Phoebe Foley
2X. By Phoebe Foley

In Oliver Sacks’ To See and Not See, Sacks follows the story of a man, Virgil, who lost his eyesight early in life. As an adult, at the urging of his fiancée, Virgil underwent surgery to regain his sight. The surgery was a success in that Virgil was able to see. He did not have perfect vision, but he was able to experience a physical landscape for the first time in his adult life.

The transition was exciting at first, but over time, it became more and more confusing for Virgil. His brain had created a visual image of certain things which didn’t match the physical world set before him. For example, he noted, “[s]kyscrapers strange, cannot understand how they stay up without collapsing.” He also had trouble seeing objects as a whole. He could see different parts of a tree – the leaves, trunk, branches – but could not figure out how to put the pieces together. Animals were similarly puzzling. He could see various body parts – a nose, paw, ear, tail – but they seemed disjointed (to the typical sighted person); he couldn’t put the parts together to form one distinct body. Essentially, Virgil was used to seeing things with his imagination, and his other senses. Tactile sight. And now, with the addition of visual input, he had lost the ability to trust what he was seeing.

In Between Moments. Photo by Maria Bilbao Herrera
In Between Moments. Photo by Maria Bilbao Herrera

Even more, everyone was telling Virgil how to see. Something he had been doing on his own for forty years.

Which brought me to one final thought. Consider the possibility of transmitting Virgil’s version of reality through the lens of a camera – would it be real? If you were to compare his image with an image from your own visual field, which version would be imagined?

Laura Revercomb is a writer, conceptual photographer and video artist. She studied psychology at Cornell University and photography at the International Center for Photography. She has been writing about photography since 2010. Photography is a life-long passion for Laura. She is very interested in the social impact photography has had and continues to have on society and human interaction.

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