What you see is what you know | Sunday Observer

What you see is what you know

20 September, 2020

“What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see.” – Jean Piaget

The usage of the words ‘see’ and ‘know’ interchangeably is very common in the English language where people even use the phrases such as ‘you see?’ or ‘you know?’ as fillers in their conversation, at times with the intention of reaffirming whether the listener understood or agreed with what is said.

Teachers sometimes, after explaining something verbally, ask students, “Do you see it?” to check whether the students understood what was explained. Students, on the other hand, instead of saying “yes, I understand it now,” may reply “yes, I see it now.” The teacher is asking whether the student can capture and visualise it in his mind, and the student says that he has a good mental picture about the concept that was explained, even if no visual aid was used throughout the whole conversation. Since we are familiar with such experiences and conversations we may not find it difficult to see the validity of the statement, “what we see is what we know” at least at that basic level.


But there is a deeper level of truth in it where ‘seeing’ is considered as a physical process and ‘knowing’ a mental process. We have learned, in our middle school health/science classes, the basic steps of the physical act of seeing as, light coming from an original source or reflected on an object, entering through the front parts of our eye (cornea, pupil and the lens) hitting the photo receptors of the retina which converts that energy into electrical signals that travel through the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain.

The visual cortex then processes that information and sends signals to other parts of the brain which finally tells us about the object from which the light comes from. Though the exact mechanisms of how this is achieved by the visual system are still poorly understood, a commonly accepted theory among scientists is that the brain uses its past experience in the memory to identify the similarities of the object seen with what it already knows..

When we see something that we have never seen before we usually try to describe it using things we have seen before that resemble the new object. Research shows that visual processing uses some of the aspects as the shape, colour, movement, location and spatial organisation. Studies show that our perception of movement, depth, perspective, the relative size and movements of objects, shading and texture all depend on contrasts in the intensity of light received by our eyes. Then the new readings are compared with what we have in the data bank of our memory. Basically, the brain is assumed to be extracting such biologically relevant information and associating the firing patterns of neurons with past experience.

Forgetting about the possibility that we may be bringing some information with us from our previous incarnations, if such a phenomenon exists, we can safely say that we start gathering information for our data banks from the day we are born. This gathering of data is ‘learning’ and the gathered data is the ‘knowledge.’

Therefore, even if one doesn’t have any defects in one’s physical apparatus of the visual processing system one may not recognise a certain object if one’s data bank has no information whatsoever about anything even remotely resembling that particular object. Therefore, to see things clearly and recognise readily we need to keep improving and expanding the data banks in our heads and hence the importance of being life-long learners. One may be blind, in a physiological sense, due to various reasons. The two main reasons would be: a) defects in the eyes and/or optic nerve, b) defects in the visual cortex of the brain.


An interesting study by researchers at the Tilburg University in the Netherlands in 2009 observed that people who were blind due to defects in their visual cortex but had no defects in their eyes and optic nerve smiled when a picture of a smiling face was placed before them and frowned when a picture of a frowning face was shown.

Their in-depth analysis of the phenomenon was published with the conclusion that the information entered the patients’ brain through the eyes but has been routed to the part of the brain where the emotions are processed since their visual cortex was not functioning.

Therefore, the patients, though they couldn’t see what was in front of them, were reacting to the emotional stimulation. This type of phenomena, sometimes referred to as ‘blindsight’, clearly bring a new meaning to the saying ‘there is more to it than meets the eye.’

There is no evidence to suggest that this does not happen in the visual system of people who can see well, meaning whose eyes, optic nerve and the visual cortex are all functioning well. Therefore, the researchers have hinted that the whole process of seeing physical objects even may have other personality traits involved in it when the final message is sent indicating to us exactly what we are seeing.

This applies not only in recognising physical objects and physical features but also in recognising personality traits such as emotions, mental complexes and kindness, love and compassion of others. What do all these have to do with our education?

Well, education in general and formal education in particular help us build and maintain the data bank which facilitates our visual system in identifying what we see.

If all other personality traits are also involved in this process, then it is extremely important that our education systems incorporate ways and means of developing proper perspectives of things both in our physical and mental worlds (focusing on IQ and EQ both).

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]