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on perception : information and noise

These photographs are taken with a mobile phone camera this evening on Mynydd Llangyndeyrn.

In digital photography, something called ‘noise’ appears in photographs taken at low light levels, making the image grainy.

What we are seeing as graininess is randomness in the image. Either the constantly present randomness in photography – a question of which particular light photons hit the camera sensor in the instant that the photograph is taken; or digital randomness caused by electronic noise from the sensor and the device itself. The conditions were dark this evening, therefore my camera was not able to collect a lot of light, so the randomness or ‘noise’ – which is always present – was this evening overpowering the image or ‘signal’, and the photos were grainy.

I am finding that I am very interested in grainy photographs, and have been deliberately making them – and also experimenting with introducing extra noise into videos and images.

I think especially, I am interested in how low light levels start to break down the camera’s ability to make images, and I find it so interesting to compare that with my own gradual loss of vision over a period of half an hour or so, as the night draws across the mountain from the east.

I have recently been doing some reading about vision and perception, and today re-reading and wrestling with a part about information and noise in perception. These walks on the mountain, and the images that I am making are helping me with making my understanding more practical.

One author I am reading, called Mark Taylor, explains aspects of the neurology of perception, and says that in our perceptual processes, information emerges from noise through progressive processes of ‘screening’.

He also says:

“There is no such thing as absolute noise; or, in different terms, chaos is not the complete lack of order but an alternative configuration that generates static for established schemata. Noise is information in the process of formation. What counts as noise and passes for information is relative to the level at which processing occurs.” (Mark Taylor: Refiguring the Spiritual)

The author points out a number of interesting aspects of these screening processes. Firstly, that the unfiltered data (the light in vision), which is not a ‘complete lack of order’, holds patterns that ‘sculpt’ the eye and brain. Secondly, that when information passes through our perceptual and cognitive screens or filters, the filtered parts do not ‘disappear’, but create resonances which ‘cannot be clearly articulated’. The author likens this to a penumbra, the partial or fuzzy area on the edge of a shadow, between shadowed and lit places. Thirdly, the structures of the filter, the structures distributed across the brain, very much influence and determine the perceptual experience – so seeing both takes a little time, and is made possible through accessing and using memory of past experiences.

This gives what I think is a very interesting model of how perception and thinking work, which the author states is very different from the ‘traditional philosophy of the cogito that informs much of modern philosophy.’

It is a model which includes a ‘cognitive unconscious’. (A way of describing these incredibly complex networks and processes of filtering and processing the information (and noise) which happen outside of conscious awareness).

The model is non dualistic – it doesn’t divide things up into mind and matter. It treats the various processes: light, chemical, mental, as similar – ie. as information and screening processes. Consciousness, thinking, is understood in this model as something which is an ’emergent phenomenon’ of these information processes.