Visual Communication and the Interface Between Perception and Cognition
Visual communication purports to provide a means of communication that could, in principle, convey more information than purely verbal or written means of communication, while, at the same time, the conveyed information would be easier to understand and accommodate within the conceptual framework of the receiver of the information. These advantages of visual communication over other means of communication are entailed by the representational format of visual representations, namely, their analog character, which is contradistinguished from the digital, symbolic form of communicational formats that rely essentially on symbols. The representational format of visual representations (such as drawings, pictures, photographs, maps, etc.) derives, as a matter of course, from the representational format of perception, in so far as perception is the sensory modality on which all visual representations rest, since all visual communication essentially presupposes that the intended recipients use perception to receive the conveyed information. Visual communication, if it is to be effective, should fulfil its function, namely, allow people to communicate, that is, to understand each other’s conveyed meanings and intentions. In order to be able to succeed in its function, visual communication should enable different viewers (the recipients of the communication) to grasp the same meaning, as audiences are supposed to grasp the same meaning from the same utterances; otherwise we would have a situation of miscommunication and not communication. There are, of course, deviations from this maxim. In painting, for example, it is usually expected that the viewers of a painting should be able to extract different messages and interpret the painting in different ways, especially as the painting becomes more and more abstract. This is so because in painting, the artist usually intends to activate or arouse the emotive, affective capacities of viewers, in addition to their intellect. As a matter of course, different viewers with different experiences may exercise their affective capacities upon viewing the same drawing. Even in this case, however, one can get a glimpse of the maxim stated above, namely, that for visual communication to be successful, different viewers should grasp the same meaning. This is evidenced by the fact that a realistic painting prompts viewers to visually experience (see) the same thing (say Mona Lisa) even though they may react emotionally in different ways. As the painting becomes more abstract, various interpretations of its meaning become possible exactly because by abstracting from reality more information is left out and the meaning, if any, is underdetermined by the information conveyed to viewers. In fact, a similar phenomenon occurs in perception. The retinal image is two dimensional and, as a result of loss of information due to the projection of 3D visual scenes on a two-dimensional surface (the retina), many real-world scenes are compatible with the retinal (or proximal) image. Naturally, perception is essential to interacting successfully with the environment and this presupposes that the under determination problem of the 3D visual scene from the proximal image should be addressed. Indeed, perceptual systems through evolution have come up with various means to solve the problem. In paintings, on the other hand, most of the time the under determination is intended by the artist and, thus, no measures are taken to alleviate the problem. Let us agree that visual communication in most of its uses is intended to communicate the same message to different viewers despite differences in their conceptual frameworks; only when different viewers get the same message (see the same thing) should it be deemed successful. However, a serious problem arises at this juncture. Visual communication relies on the perceptual capabilities of viewers and, therefore, its effectiveness is constrained by the ability of viewers to see the same thing upon being presented with a visual communicative means, say a photograph. This capability, in turn (since a photograph is itself a visual scene in that it is a physical means consisting of semantic parts that portrayes a visual scene) is the same as the ability to see the same thing when presented with an actual visual scene. Here in lies the problem besetting the effectiveness of visual communication. It has been argued (Churchland, 1988; Hanson, 1958; Kuhn 1962; too mention just the forefathers of this view) that when viewers have different conceptual frameworks, they may see different things even upon viewing the same visual scene (the same distal stimulus). In other words, what we believe affect what we see. In view of the fact that it is highly likely that, at least to a certain extent, our cognitive states could affect perceptual processing, does this entail that visual communication, as opposed to miscommunication, is unattainable? In this paper, I argue that this is not the case; visual communication can be effective. The reason for this, in a nutshell, is that visual perception consists of two parts, early and late vision. Of these two, only late vision is affected by cognition (it is cognitively penetrated), the other, early vision is not (it is cognitively impenetrable). I take the cognitive impenetrability of early vision for granted (see Raftopoulos 2009, 2019) and explain why this entails that visual communication is possible despite the cognitive impenetrability of late vision.
Keywords – Visual Communication, Meaning of Visual Communication, Conceptual Frameworks, Perception, Perception, Cognition Interface.