Alva Noe on Visual Presence


Alva Noe, Ph.D., did a wonderful job in his lecture today at the COVD meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.  You can see how Dr. Noe’s work on vision has progressed since this interview with Deepak Chopra several years ago.  His invitation to speak at our conference was initiated by his book, Perception in Action.  You can read a marvelous review of his book here.  But a new book by Noe captures the essence of what he spoke about today – visual presence in the context of varieties of presence. You can also gain a bit of what Dr. Noe was alluding to in this NPR piece published last week.  To see Alva’s presentation you’ll ultimately be able to purchase it as part of the Conference through DigiVision.  If you really want to see Dr. Noe’s presentation now, you’ll be able to get a reasonable feel for it in this YouTube presentation at a recent conference in which he participated, on the topic of Embodiment.

Dr. Noe’s presentation turned out to be a paradox, but a very pleasant one.  He used the work of Francis Crick as a construct to show The Astonishing Hypothesis proposed wasn’t so astonishing after all if one understands theories about the Cartesian nature of the brain.  I enjoyed his comment that looking only in the brain to explain consciousness, as Crick does, is like trying to understand money by looking deeper into the paper on which it is printed.  There’s simply too much of an explanatory gap, and we’re probably looking in the wrong place. fMRIs and other neuroimaging technologies are welcome, but they don’t get at the heart of the interaction between brain, eyes and environment.

The irony is that through the example of inverting prisms, notably the work of Ivan Kohler in the 1950s, Dr. Noe arrived at the conclusion that to fully understand vision we must accept that it is intimately linked with our motor skill (nor does motor skill necessarily involve movement, lest Noe be accused of being a total sensorimotor chauvinist).  What would find it almost impossible to adapt to inverting prisms without being able to interact with the environment.  Mis-perceiving is a fundamental part of perceiving.

Noe invoked Merlau-Ponty’s notion that vision is the brain’s way of touching, that we have referenced before, factored together with shades of J.J. Gibson’s ecological optics.  All in all, simply a masterful presentation, and the beginning of a dialogue between one of the world’s brilliant theoreticians of vision, and a body of COVD clinicians who handle vision brilliantly.  We can learn much from one another, as was Dr. Don Getz’s original intent and Dr. Gary Williams’ determination to continue.

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