Visual Perception and Consciousness

Conscious experience is one of the most familiar things to humans, although the understanding of the concept remains at a rudimentary level. Consciousness is thus one of the most eluding concept in the scientific field in terms of comprehending how its workings or even defining it. Nevertheless, the effects of presence of consciousness can be studied to understand how awareness of own sensations could affect the nature of one’s visual experiences. Consequently, the aim of this essay is to present and analyse these effects. It will begin with an account of current neurological insights of the agency of consciousness and its applications to the implementation of the visual system. Afterwards, the report will illustrate how awareness of own existence and fundamental flaws of human perception allows to discriminate the objective and subjective realities as an evolutionary advantage. Furthermore, the essay will elaborate on nature of the aesthetic experience, and the role of consciousness. Particularly why both pleasing and repellent sensations could constitute the aesthetic experience. Finally, the visual examples will be provided to illustrate the theories and arguments.


Consciousness is as a fascinating yet an elusive phenomenon, and it difficult to conceptualise it or its evolutionary purpose (Sutherland, 1989). As the brain has been evolving, the neural connections that performed computations and controlled external behaviour have been passed on and consciousness is generally associated with one’s ability to quickly adapt (Solso, 2003). Furthermore, many believe that each individual posses an innate knowledge of what consciousness is (Searle, 2005). Broadly, consciousness could be defined as an ability to experience and feel, it is awareness of the self and an ability to exercise control over one’s mind and actions (Farthing, 1992). Visual experience is therefore frequently used as a basic example of one’s conscious state. For example, while the sensation of seeing colour red or blue is one of the simplest and is known as qualia. However, it is extremely hard to convey it verbally, as this sensation, although immediately apparent subjective awareness, is intrinsic and ineffable (Dennett, 1993). The concept of qualia is thus directly connected to the “hard problem of consciousness”, which regards the reason why conscious experiences become conscious, how sensations acquire characteristics and subjectivity (Koch, 2004). This problem thus seeks explanation of the relationship between physical phenomena, such as brain processes, and phenomenal experiences, and which has no answer yet.

Moreover, conscious experiences can also be differentiated. The broadly accepted facets of consciousness are its phenomenal and reflective or access properties (Koch, 2004). Phenomenal consciousness is the first sensation experienced by anyone or “what it feels like” or the previously mentioned qualia. It is the raw experience of colours, shapes, sounds and subsequent feelings. On the other hand, there is access consciousness, where phenomenal experiences facilitate introspection (Koch, 2004). In definition it is comparable to “higher order consciousness” and allows to report on one’s phenomenal sensations – the use introspection for reflection upon the phenomenal experience one just had (Revonsuo, 2006, Edelman & Tononi, 2000). As a result, higher-order consciousness is only possible if there is phenomenal consciousness in the first place (Farthing, 1992; Edelman & Tononi, 2000).

Finally, a sense of self constitutes another aspect of conscious experience, which accompanies the higher-order consciousness (Edelman & Tononi, 2000). Broadly, it is the awareness of the self as a different agent to the environment and the recognition of own phenomenal and access awareness (Jabr, 2012). Baker (2000) additionally commented that it is not only an ability to recognise oneself from non-self, but also an ability to conceptualise this distinction. Therefore, one approach is to view self-consciousness as an inherent quality that characterises subjectivity as such, rather than a different mental state. Therefore, it serves as a link between experiences and first-personal accessibility to them (Zahavi, 2008). “It is impossible to think or experience something consciously without thinking or experiencing it self-consciously, i.e., without being peripherally aware of thinking or experiencing it” (Zahavi, 2008, p. 16). Therefore, phenomenal consciousness itself could bear a minimal degree of self-awareness, allowing further introspection by higher-order consciousness. Ultimately, it could be argued that various mental states become conscious due to the features located within it, rather than being conferred by further extrinsic mental states.  

Visual System

Regardless over the disparities in definitions, it is reasonable to assume that consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon, and results from a brain activity. Consequently, consciousness and its neural correlates can be empirically studied and potentially aid to solve the hard-problem (Kandel, 2007). Notably, in this respect one of the most promising areas of research in the area of consciousness is in fact visual sensation. Due the importance of visual perception in conscious experience it is possible to observe the neural correlations of the visual system to subsequently identify the minimal set of brain activity necessary for conscious mental experience (Crick, 1994). The visual system along with the brain has evolved to improve one’s survival chances by solving the problems of sustenance, endurance reproduction, judgement of other’s motives, etc. All of these correspond to a particular purpose – adaptation, and in order to maximise the result the perception of the external world has to be as accurate as possible (Solso, 2003).

Consequently, the main purpose of the visual system is to guide one’s movement and provide perceptual phenomenology and its coding it to be stored in memory (Milner, 1998). Initially, the visual inputs from the retina are relayed by the lateral geniculate nucleus and then reach the the primary visual cortex (V1) in the occipital lobe, where the two processes take place. These are the two major streams of processing, known as ventral and dorsal pathways. The ventral pathway mainly corresponds to form representation and object recognition, including colours, shapes and face recognition. The ventral signals travel through the V1, V2 and then on to V4 and concluding in the inferior temporal cortex (Milner, 1998).The primary visual cortex is the initial cortical area where the visual information is processed, including colour and pattern recognition, spatial frequency and differentiating moving objects. Later the secondary visual cortex (V2) is functionally similar to V1. Its neurons are more tuned and modulated by binocular rivalry and attributes like illusory contours. It also differentiates whether the object is part of the background or not (Ts'o, Zarella & Burkitt, 2009). Afterwards, the visual area 4 (V4) processes the information about simple geometric shapes, line orientation as well as colour inputs (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). Finally, the stream reaches the inferior temporal cortex responsible for object and face recognition (Milner, 1998). In contrast, the dorsal pathway is mainly concerned with motion processing and discriminating objects’ spatial positions (Milner, 1998). From V1 this stream proceeds to the third visual area (V3), which is speculated to carry out motion-sensing and processing. Finally, the neurons of the following area know as MT (middle temporal) or V5 respond to direction and speed of motion, processing of binocular disparity and stimulus size (Born & Bradley, 2005).

Henceforth, processing visual stimuli processing typically involves three steps (Nadal, Capo, Munar, Marty & Cela-Conde, 2007). Initially, the simple components are discriminated and analysed across the ventral and dorsal pathways. Afterwards, a coherent representation is formed from the recombination of the analysed elements leading to phenomenal sensations. In the final stage, certain areas of the image may further be scrutinised, memories are retrieved, objects are recognised and meaningful associations are formed (Nadal, Capo, Munar, Marty & Cela-Conde, 2007). Accordingly, the structure of the visual system demonstrates that the brain is modular: divided into areas with varying functions and specialised cognitive faculties (Fodor, 1985). Moreover, if one is to be damaged, that subsequently tends to affect rather specific functions. For example, damage to temporal cortex impairs object and face recognition (Milner, 1998). However, it can also be seen that despite the general specialisation, it is still impossible to make rigid distinctions between the modules as they are closely interconnected (Eysenck & Keane, 2010).

There different connections between the brain modules subsequently have an ostensible effect on emergence of visual awareness. The processing of visual stimulus during the 100ms after the stimulation is called the feedforward sweep (Lamme, 2000). It involves rapid consecutive parallel connections that travel up the anatomical and functional hierarchy, with response latencies of approximately 10ms after each previous level. (Lamme, 2000). The feedforward sweep is arguably an unconscious process and determines the module’s tuning properties. However, Lamme (2000) argues that visual processing does not stop there, yet it largely relies on the proceeding recurrent (or reciprocal) processing. Recurrent connections involve feedback links from the higher back to the lower cortical regions and their horizontal interactions. Thus, the horizontal and the feedback connections affect the embedded tuning frameworks according to contextual information and make the visual processing more complex, potentially leading to phenomenal experiences (Lamme, 2000). Consequently, consciousness input is preceded by a period of preconscious processing. For example, a stimulus shown for 180ms remain invisible to subjects as they cannot generate verbal report on it. However, the brain scanning revealed that activation of the occipital lobe is just as strong if the stimulus was consciously visible (Dehaene, Changeux, Naccache, Naccache & Sergent, 2006). Consequently, it is argued that after the reciprocal processing spans all visual modules. It then becomes accessible for higher cognitive areas, facilitating visual awareness and subsequent verbal report and reflection (Lamme, 2000). Thus, it can be seen that while visual processing can be pinpointed to specific cortical areas, the consciousness experience appears to arise due to the interaction between these, rather than from a specific brain module.

Interestingly, although the perception system is rather well tuned and interactive, it still remains automatic and subsequently limited.  “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part always comes out of our own mind” (James, 1890). The visual processing is largely an automated mechanism, which is rapidly executed, while remaining unconscious and independent of cognitive ability (Evans & Stanovich, 2013). Thus, during the process the brain estimates the properties of an image, as the eye cannot capture all sufficient information, and makes assumptions about the real world. Not only that the human eye cannot physically capture all the information about the worlds, a 3D form is then translated into a 2D image on the retina. Thus, the percepts are established probabilistically to be interpreted in the brain (Hoffman, 2009). Visual experience is consequently an accumulated statistical meaning about the world than its actual representation. To a great extend the visual system provides an adequate enough output to elicit appropriate visually guided behaviour, while the rapid speed of processing is certainly an evolutionary advantage. 

‍Figure 1. Müller-Lyer stimuli and its variations. Despite this substitution, the illusory effect remains.

Nevertheless, such processing combines many probabilistic sources of information, such as shadows, texture gradients, binocular rivalry, etc. and mistakes in signal perception and interpretation occur (Hoffman, 2009). Notably, the stimulus can become distorted during the bottom-up feedforward processes due to systematic errors in the rules of interpreting these visual cues. As a result, a phenomenon know as visual illusions occurs, frequently referred to as ‘errors of perception’ due to false inferences made by the visual system. For instance, a Müller-Lyer illusion (Figure 1A) features 3 stylised arrows, with same length shaft and short fins. The combinations of the fins are located at the consecutive ends of each shaft and pointing either inwards or outwards, forming arrow “heads” or “tails” (Howe & Purves, 2004). The essence of the illusion is that the viewers subsequently perceive the shafts to be of different lengths. The shaft with two arrow heads always appears shorter than a shaft terminated by two arrow tails. Howe and Purves (2004) explain that the effect holds as the visual system processes the image in the context of the probability distributions of the real-world sources of lines and intervals. The study of the natural scenes has indeed revealed that in the real world the length of lines accompanied by the contexts of arrow heads and arrow tails tend to be fact different. This explanation also applies to the derivations of the Müller-Lyer illusion (Figure 1B, 1C and 1D) as in natural environments similar probability patterns were found for different line adornments (Howe & Purves, 2004).

As a result, “seeing” should not equate “believing”. As the automatic processes are fast and require no to little conscious effort, in contrast to it stand the conscious system. The latter is typically characterised as slow, sequential and strongly connected to the measures of one’s intelligence (Solso, 2003). This is also known as the higher order cognition, and the important difference is that it allows to make deliberate decisions and conscious thought, particular about abstract and hypothetical scenarios (Evans & Stanovich, 2013; Edelman & Tononi, 2000).  Combined with self awareness, it allows humans to construct representations of the self and thus think about own behaviours and characteristics (Leary, 2004). As a result, the availability of higher-order consciousness allows to critically examine what is phenomenally conscious and realise the faults of the own visual system.  Arguably, one of the potentially most important functions of the self and higher order cognition is to be able to discriminate and override the outputs of the biased automated system (Leary, 2004). For example, in the natural habitat it is to discriminate animal camouflage. For example, certain species, such as butterflies and caterpillars employ “eyespots”, which mimic the eyes of larger animals, so that to scare off potential predators. Such mimicry was found to cause to predators to innately flee or startle (Kelley & Kelley, 2013). However, the access consciousness allows to remember the information about butterfly’s anatomy and their wing patterns to discern the illusion.

Figure 2. Dynastor darius darius snake head chrysalis (Hill, 2015)
Figure 3. Wings of a South African speckled emperor moth (National Geographic, 20

Aesthetic Appreciation

Higher-order consciousness is thus a key step in the evolutionary process and is believed to provide voluntary control and subsequently provide different adaptive alternatives. Moreover, access consciousness appears in humans accompanied by the capability to construct abstract thought and hypothetical scenarios (Edelman & Tononi, 2000).  However, it could be argued that this requires a certain degree of a semantic ability. Consequently, concepts of space and time, memories and acquired knowledge and ongoing phenomenological sense can be tied together through thought and language, leading to new imagery. As such, this also allows to conceive what it means to be conscious, distinguish own qualia and describe it through symbolic means. Therefore, with the emergence of semantic abilities in early humans, along with emerge of new neural network, allowed higher-order consciousness to thrive (Edelman & Tononi, 2000). 

Consciousness is also suggested to have an essential role in production and understanding of art – arguably also a semantic capacity (Solso, 2003).   Production of art hence involves drawing analogies between own mental states or qualia and own cultural backgrounds and knowledge. The art artifice is then a physical material embodied with a symbolic content expressed through developed semantic convention (Crowther, 1993). For example, this could be carving out a piece of wood to resemble something else in shape and purpose to posit certain meaning. Frequently, these object lack any functional utility and have a sole purpose to serve the needs of one’s self-consciousness. These include social attention, projection of the self and comprehension, which enhance the reciprocal interaction. Thereupon, such artefact, whether a painting, sculpture, performance, becomes an object of aesthetic appreciation (Crowther, 1993). Therefore, origins of art can also be traced to the emergence of access consciousness and symbolic formation. And just as consciousness cannot be pinned down to a specific brain area, neuroimaging studies have found that aesthetic preference cannot be allocated to a single brain module (Nadal, Capo, Munar, Marty & Cela-Conde, 2007).

Seeing and processing art begins with the visual system, which has evolved to capture colours, shapes and movement. Primarily in order to understand the interactions between objects and ourselves millions of years ago. And as any other visual stimuli, artwork is processed in 3 stages. As a result, paintings are capable of eliciting emotional responses, which become consciously aware through the attentional processing (Nadal, Capo, Munar, Marty & Cela-Conde, 2007). As a result, many philosophers conceive the purpose of art is to promote the aesthetic experience. In this respect, the most intuitive definition of an aesthetic experience refers to a certain quale, sensation or a distinct feeling, that is ought to involve a sensation of pleasure.  Consequently, the value of the artwork is judged upon the amount of aesthetic experience that it bestows (Carroll, 2006). Yet, this raises a question of why certain objects appear more appealing than others, or why Van Gogh’s Starry Night is admirable, although the brain did not initially evolve to appreciate fine arts (Solso, 2003).

This particular observation is addressed by the field of evolutionary psychology and aesthetics, which seeks to describe aesthetic preferences as emerging from genetic inheritance and shaped by the evolutionary process (Dutton, 2003). This means that certain aesthetic appeals and emotions associated with them may have developed as an evolutionary adaptation. For example, a cross cultural study of art preferences has found that blue, followed by green, are the most favourite colours. Moreover, responses to the landscape types also have a relative uniformity, with a general preference for water and a variety of open space combined with wooded areas, bushes and paths, which encourage exploration (Dutton, 2003). Evolutionary phycologists thus hold that such preferences reflect the features most habitable human environments. The colours green and blue are the predominant colours in the nature, while the described landscape preferences indicate such highly desirable factors as land fertility, game availability, shelter and escape routes. Interestingly, these elements are frequent in European landscape art, while realistic representative paintings have been found the most popular across many nations (Dutton, 2003).  Consequently, specific temporal and spatial dispersion of neural activity facilitates enjoyment from viewing certain artworks rather than the others (Leder, Belke, Oeberst & Augustin, 2004).

 Nevertheless, the evolutionary aesthetics cannot account for the entire continuum of human aesthetic preferences and experiences. The features described above evoke pleasurable sensations as they aim to satisfy certain needs and desires, such as hunger or shelter. On the contrary, it can be observed that some aesthetic experiences are disinterested – they are not motivated by self-concern (Carroll, 2006). The evolutionary phycologists have thus described the sensations that lack any intellectual element, and are different from appreciation of an artwork combined with imagination and rational understanding (Dutton, 2003). Kant has referred to this as a disinterested experience, which stems from an object that does not entail any prospective utility or pragmatic considerations (Carroll, 2006). For example, Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother reading a Bible may seem more appealing than a pin-up model, which reflects preferences in sexual interests (Dutton, 2003).. In contrast, the viewer may enjoy the deeper meanings integrated into a complex artwork. For the Rembrandt’s painting these are the admiration of the artist’s skill, respect for an older woman and appreciation of the religious context. Consequently, while evolutionary phycology describes the biological origins of immediate sensations of aesthetic please, yet the later also engages higher mental facilities. Although, “the brain did not evolve to understand Picasso”, yet this ability arguably demonstrates a further extend of conscious-provided mental versatility (Dutton, 2003).

Figure 4 Damien Hirst and 'The Promise of Money'

Moreover, aesthetic experiences are not solely defined by a sensation of pleasure. It can be observed that frequently art does not ensue beauty and therefore the elicited aesthetic experiences are not defined by pleasure. Feelings of disgust, fear and anger can arise from immersion into the appreciation of a work of art, while these sensations cannot be defined as “pleasurable” (Carroll, 2006). Nevertheless, such negative emotions also have a claim to referred to as “aesthetic experiences” or constitute a part of one. For example, ‘Requiem’ exhibition by Damien Hirst combines the beauty and ugliness, life and death to illustrate the horrors of reality and humans’ desperate yet hopeless struggle with mortality (Pinchuk Art Centre, 2009). The visual impact is immediate and frequently repulsive, as the artists works in the medium of dead animals, surgical instruments, pills and medicines. For example, an installation ‘The Promise of Money’ depicts a dead cow hanging from the ceiling, with a slit open stomach, revealing the entrails spilling on the floor mixed with Iraqi banknotes (Pinchuk Art Centre, 2009). The effect is visceral and is purposely designed to evoke disgust.  Though such graphic and brutal spectacle the artist aimed to communicate the themes of endless search for certainly, vanity mortality, perishability of wealth and the intrinsic ties that connect these themes with each other, society and individuals. The artwork is therefore a manifestation of disgust and feeling of pleasure would defeat its purpose (Pinchuk Art Centre, 2009).

As a result, it could be stated that the distinctive quality of the aesthetic experience is that is not self-centred, pragmatic or for sensation of pleasure only. The aesthetic experiences are also contemplative, “founded on the cognitive exploration of sensory manifolds”, feeling the pleasure for a visual artefact simply for what it is (Crowther, 1993, p. 157). The engagement with an artwork is thus a self-rewarding experience (Markovic, 2012). For example, a neuroimaging study has found that the same brain modules are activated when focusing on either pragmatic or aesthetic aspects of paintings (Markovic, 2012).  Thus, it could be suggested that aesthetic experience is a distinct state of mind, which transcends the domain of everyday beauty appreciation and is more than aesthetic preference. As such, the new aesthetic meaning arises from the looking beyond the biological, psychological, and social functions of an artwork, regardless whether it could be described as “beautiful” or not (Leder, Belke, Oeberst & Augustin, 2004). Kieran (2011) subsequently holds that it is important to carefully examine the aesthetic work and consciously reflect upon the emotions an artwork invokes, why is it ultimately likeable. Consequently, possession of the self allows introspection to change the nature of own initial experiences from what they would have been had the observer not thought consciously about them (Kieran, 2011). That is how the observer may find Hirst’s works aesthetically pleasing, despite the initial feelings of disgust. Thus a better understanding of a work increases the prospect of inducing an aesthetic experience (Leder, Belke, Oeberst & Augustin, 2004).

 Kieran (2011) further elaborates that one should contemplate the artist’s motivations and potential purpose of the artwork. Therefore, the observes also needs to be able to take into account and compare different viewpoint of other observers to be perceptually and emotionally discriminatingand hence develop a critical sympathy (Kieran, 2011).It could be argued that higher-order consciousness and self-awareness presuppose the the ability to ascribe mental states, such as intentions, desires and knowledge, to oneself and others, known as the theory of mind (Zahavi, 2008). The argument holds that self-consciousness allows to classify mental states as being the mental states, experiences as experiences, which in the first place requires an internal understanding of the concept of experience. That subsequently requires a “conception of objects or states of affairs that are capable of being experienced and of existing unexperienced” (Zahavi, 2008, p.15) As a result, it is argued that children till the age of four do not possess introspective self-awareness and therefore fail at classical mind theory tests. For example, in the study children that were able to conceptualise for own mental states, were also able to discern mental states of others. However, if they could not account for own experiences, they also could not attribute mental states to others (Happe, 2003). Ultimately, such processing activates the higher-order cortical areas of the brain, leading to an even deeper extend of imagination and artwork interpretation (Solso, 2003).

 This is particularly pertinent for modern abstract art as it requires a greater need for contemplation than any other art form (Leder, Belke, Oeberst & Augustin, 2004). Comprehension of abstract piece surpasses its primordial visual representations, as the artist’s concepts and ideas are not evident from artwork appearance. Consequently, the observer is tasked with a challenge to cognitively classify the art styles, adopt various perspectives and problem solve in order to extract meaning. Modern art therefore needs to be understood both semantically and aesthetically and constitutes of a “cognitive process accompanied by continuously upgrading affective states that vice versa are appraised, resulting in an (aesthetic) emotion” (Leder, Belke, Oeberst & Augustin, 2004, p.493). As a result, so process of artwork interpretation is psychologically and emotionally positive and that constitutes the aesthetic experience. For example, Hilma Af Klint was a Swedish abstract movement pioneer, largely interested in contemporary movements of spiritualism, anthroposophy along with discoveries in the fields of botany, mathematics and sciences (Moderna Museet, 2016). Notably, she has been exploring the issues of human existence, believing that she was channelling a higher plane of consciousness in her pieces. Nevertheless, on the first glance Klint’s works exhibit mere geometrical shapes, combinations of unrelated colours and writings. However, these should be interpreted as symbols. For example, Klint intentionally carefully considered all the potential meanings her works may have. In her notes the artist clarified certain semantic meanings, for instance, the spiral represents the evolutionary process, dove – love, hook and eyelet – masculinity and femininity, respectively (Moderna Museet, 2016). Otherwise, these metaphors can only be understood if one could project themselves into Klint’s spiritual context and try to see hew viewpoint, particularly in the context of current scientific developments that have been inspiring her. That engages the higher-order cognition and requires awareness of own and external mental states.


In conclusion, consciousness arises from the interconnected activities of separate brain modules, however apart from that the process remains largely undiscovered.Yet, it is known that one of the primary functions of consciousness it to override the responses of the automatic nervous system and elicits voluntary action. Self-awareness additionally allows to realise own physical faults to better adapt to ever-changing environments. For example, it permits comprehension of the inherent imperfections of own visual system and differentiate what we see from the objective reality, as in case of visual illusions. Moreover, a higher-order consciousness plays a key role in visual communication facilitated by the emergence of semantic capability in humans. Just as language allows to communicate own utterances, and so does artwork. Simultaneously, many aesthetic preferences have evolved to inherently prefer features advantageous to one’s survival, such as colours of green and blue. Nevertheless, the higher-order consciousness and self-awareness add new layers of meaning to any object of aesthetic appreciation. Thus, humans can transcend the biological and cultural schemas and consciously contemplate on the quality of an artwork, artist’s intention and hidden symbolic meanings, regardless whether the initial phenomenal experiences are pleasant or not.

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