Among the learned in ancient India and Greece, the emission theory of vision was standard. That theory proposed that subtle rays were emitted by the eyes, which met objects and illuminated them. Alcmaeon, the Greek poet, used the example of being struck in the eye as a proof that there is a ‘fire’ in the eye: “the eye obviously has fire within, for when one is struck (this fire) flashes out. Vision is due to the gleaming – that is to say, the transparent character of that which (in the eye) reflects to the object. And sight is more perfect, the greater the purity of the substance. Empedocles believed the visual, the eidolons of the things about us, are the product of the merger of the rays of the eyes and the rays of the things. Indian scholars had doubts about the rays of things – if this was so, we could see in the dark – but they, too, believed that the eye emits rays. Interestingly, the Mohists in China, working about the same time, accepted the reception theory – that the eye receives light rather than projects it.
All of which is a matter of cherrypicking texts on the intellectual level. On the folk psychological level, the notion that the eye – unlike the ear, the tongue, the nose, the fingers – has a certain active role in the world is hard to shake off. One stares at a person hoping that person will look up and see one – and it happens. Or we hide our eyes not only to keep ourselves from seeing something, but to keep that thing from happening. Perhaps it is the structure of the eye, with a lid that closes – which makes the eye ensemble a very different receptor set from the other senses – that gives us this primitive sense of the eye as projector. Piaget was the first childhood researcher to mention the fact that the child’s theory of vision is often curiously like the ancient Greek theory of vision.
Gerald Cottrell and Jane Winer have written a series of papers about the “extramission” theory of the eye in children and adults. One of their more startling papers, “Fundamentally misunderstanding visual perception”, concerns a survey they took among college students.
“For example, we typically found extramission beliefs among college students who were
tested after they had received instruction on sensation and perception in introductory psychology classes, thus suggesting not only that adults were afﬁrming extramission beliefs but that such beliefs were resistant to education. We were confronted, then, with the likelihood that students
were emerging from basic-level psychology courses without an understanding of one of the most important psychological processes, namely, visual perception.”
Interestingly, in the history of ideas, it was the Arabic natural philosophers who first overthrew the “extramission” theory. In the West, the names to look for are Nicolas de Cusa and Kepler. That Cottrell and Winer find college students who believe the eye emits a kind of power is, to my mind, much more interesting evidence of the intellectual folkways of Americans than their poll-ready responses to questions about evolution. It is absolutely unsurprising to a Freudian to find that numbers of adults believe that the eye has some mysterious power. Projection and the omnipotence of thought are two of the great pillars of Freudian anthropology.
Incidentally, this is how Winer and Cottrell made their survey:
The test most recently used to examine extramission beliefs involves computer representations of vision (see Gregg,Winer, Cottrell, Hedman, & Fournier, 2001; Winer, Cottrell, Kareﬁlaki, & Gregg, 1996). We typically instructed participants that we were interested in how vision occurs, sometimes adding that we were speciﬁcally concerned with whether anything, like rays or waves, comes into or goes out of the eyes when people see. We then presented a series of trials in which we simultaneously displayed on a com-puter screen various representations of vision that involved different combinations of input and output. The participants then indicated which representation they thought depicted how or why people see.” Among the choices was pure reception – the correct choice, pure extramission, and a mix in which the eye bounces back information to the object. Amazingly 40 to 60 percent of college students chose either pure extramission or the idea of the eye bouncing back information on the object.
Intellectually, of course, I am down with Kepler and crewe. But life is lived on a level of pure superstition as well. Especially when you are raising a baby. Thus, I have found myself closing my eyes when shushing Adam, as though my eye rays were keeping him up. Or as though some esp mimicry action would work, where pure shushing doesn’t. Of course, it is true that infants latch onto faces, but I close my eyes sometimes even when he is not looking me in the face.
On the level of my psychopathological life, the eye, the gaze, the stare, has a power that no other sensory state has. I do not believe that I can change sound through my ear, but the thought creeps in that I can change sight through my eye. I imagine that me – and forty to sixty percent of college students – are not alone. What car driver has not decided to stare and point at a red light, willing it green, at some point in his or her driving career? And yet where could this idea possibly come from? I can’t imagine a similar thought about smell, hearing, or touch.
Of course, what other sense is so involved in our waking, doing, communicating, having sex, entertaining lives? Aldous Huxley’s feelies – in which touch would enter our waking world with the power of sight – unfortunately has never been realized. Most of our working life is utterly indifferent to touch – and our concern with smell is mostly that there not be any. But the eye retains its mysterious, mesmerizing symbolic power over us.
All of which will make playing peekaboo with Adam when he is a year older an interesting philosophical exercise, no?