table of contents

a look at how humans think and see

Subjective Grouping, Categorization and Prioritization
of Information
by David Rudd Cycleback

(c) Cycleback, 2003, 2005 all rights reserved


















































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































When a human being visually perceives, she mentally organizes, sorts, groups, prioritizes and labels the things in the scene. When you look at an ink sketch, you mentally assemble the ink lines, squiggles and dots into a form. "It's a kitty cat." "It's a cottage in the woods." You decide which ink marks belong together and how, and which do not. Two people can and do group the ink markings differently.

A Rorschach ink blot is perceived differently by different people. The ink blot remains the same. The viewer changes. Rorschach ink blots are used by psychiatrists and psychologists to learn about an individual's mind.

Rorschach ink blot: What does this look like to you? (Looks like a scary wolf to me, and like two ballerinas to a friend.)

The human is never just an observer of a scene, but an active participant in creating his perception. The viewer picks out what information is deemed important and what is not. When someone labels a photo as "a group of kittens," the label has grouped kittens together and disregarded other visible information (background pillow, wall, grass, toy). The picking out of kittens alone as the label shows us the viewer's priorities.


* * * *

A human does not and cannot simultaneously focus on all information in a scene. Humans don't have the mental capacity. Humans focus on some things and ignore others. When you enter a room, your eyes are drawn to something or things. Perhaps you focus on the gracious hosts, perhaps a statue to the side. If there is a rat in the middle of the floor, your immediate perception will be of the rat and not of the rose wallpaper.

If you enter the room and there is an attractive nude, you likely won't notice what is on the coffee table. You might not even notice the coffee table. After blushingly excusing yourself and scooting out of the room, you may not recall the existence of a coffee table, but it was there right in front of your eyes.

This focus, and the resulting perception, is your creation.


* * * *

Is it three bars or a horse shoe?

With the just shown impossible trident visual illusion, the viewer forms a perception about the whole from looking at just one end. When she looks at the other end, she realizes her extrapolation was wrong. Unlike the examples from the pervious chapter (Visual Illusions: Imagination), there is no missing information. All of the information is there for the eyes to see, but the viewer forms her initial perception as if information is hidden. She mentally hides the information herself.

* * * *

If you ask someone to group and prioritize things in a picture, you will see both her biases and how she perceives. The perception will be just as much about the viewer as the picture.

* * * *

The viewer's purpose shapes perception. A person going to look at the art will have a different perception of the museum than someone merely stopping by to use bathroom. A kid visiting to do a report on sculpture will have a different perception of the art than a kid doing a report on paintings. If they visit different areas of the museum and enter different doors, they may have different ideas about the building's architecture.

The purpose is formed before the scene is viewed, meaning a perception is partially predetermined.


* * * *

Language is a common way to organize, label and perceive objects and ideas. Native language is something we learned as infants, talk, think and even dream in. Our native language has profound influence on how we look at the world. Different languages give different emphasis, meaning, aesthetics, sounds and, perhaps most important, categories to things. As one perceives and thinks in part through categorizing (cats belong as one group, dogs belong as one group, magazines as another), native linguistic categories influence even subconscious perception. It influences how we imagine things when our eyes are closed.

An elemental example of difference between languages is when a person in Atlanta Georgia and a person in Rome Italy read the same word 'pizza,' yet imagine different things. A pizza in Georgia is different than a pizza in Italy. If you asked the two to identify a pizza at a market, they might point to different objects. The Italian may say of the Georgian's choice, "You're crazy. That's not pizza. Let me read the label … Tombstone … Do not defrost before cooking … remove cellophane … Glenview Illinois … You Americans might know Slim Whitman and Gilligan's Island, but you know nothing about pizza. Come to Rome and I'll show you pizza."

Many differences are more subtle. For example, different cultures do not always categorize color alike. Different languages can and do have a different number of names for colors. This means a particular name, say red or green, will apply to a different range of wavelength on the visible light spectrum. It's the same total light spectrum of color for both cultures, but the different numbers of names divide the spectrum into a different size pieces. Like cutting two identical pizzas, one into nine pieces and the other into seven. The pizzas are identical except one has fewer and bigger pieces. In one culture, 'red' can cover a different range of color than the equivalent word 'red' in another culture. What you call red, a person on another continent may or may not call red.
Even within a culture, people often categorize colors differently. This is commonly done in the marginal areas, such as aqua blue, dark orange versus red, magenta versus pink. It is probable that you perceive some borderline colors differently than your spouse, friend or co-workers. If two friends define colors differently, they may believe they are talking about different cloth swatches when they are talking about the same one. Or they may believe they are talking about the same swatch when they are talking about different.

This between friends difference can be because they don't have the exact same color vision and that they never had a serious discussion about what are the boundaries of aqua blue, or what constitutes badious, brunneous and gamboges. I don't recall ever having an instructor teach the exact boundaries of aqua blue, aqua marine or magenta, not even in art class. I doubt I ever had an instructor who knew the exact boundaries.


As humans commonly communicate, learn and conceptualize the abstract through words, different interpretations of words often lead to conflicts. What may at first appear to be a visual illusion or even mental illness in a person may be a difference in culture.

An American joke is "Never ask for Squirt on an English airline." To Americans, Squirt is a brand of lemon/lime soda pop. To the English the word means urine.

I think it's safe to order 7Up. main



(c) david rudd cycleback, all rights reserved