The perception of pattern – join the dots

contemporary art science pattern perception

I’ve just created this image this morning, inspired by a book that I bought a couple of days ago at the Wellcome Collection (an exhibition space that merges art and science, and a place that I strongly recommend a visit to if you’re in London). The book is Art Forms in Nature, which depicts the astonishing drawings of German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1918).
The edition of the book that I purchased (Prestel, 1998) has an introduction that includes a diagram by David Marr (1945-1980), a British neuroscientist who worked extensively in the field of visual processing.
The David Marr image, shown below, was concerned with the way in which the human eye (and brain) will scan images seeking out understandable patterns. The image (which I’d never seen before as far as I remember) reminded me very much of some of the images that I’ve produced myself, both in its form (arrays of dots) and intension (the generation of ambiguously decipherable interlocking patterns).

David Marr visual processing dot pattern
(Image reprinted courtesy of The MIT Press from Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information by David Marr, ©MIT 2010, figure 2-5, page 50)

Naturally I was inspired to deconstruct the David Marr image so that I could then try to create my own images based on what I found. The image at the top of this post is the first result.
After studying David Marr’s image I worked out that a simplified version of it could be constructed from multiple versions of the basic element shown below, with each element placed at an equal distance from the adjacent elements.

contemporary art science pattern perception

I call this image a basic element, but that’s slightly inaccurate.

When you look at this element you probably see a centre dot surrounded by a ring of dots with lines of dots radiating outwards like rays.
However, this ‘basic element’ isn’t really a basic element at all, because I created it from an even more basic element, this being a row of thirty three dots in a straight line. Six copies of this row of dots were then distributed about their centres in a clock face fashion.  See the image below. So in some ways the element in the image above isn’t really a ring surrounded by rays at all – it’s actually a set of six lines of dots.

pattern perception in visual processing

Just one more thing.
When you look at the element above you see a clearly defined inner ring of dots and probably a less obvious secondary ring of dots created by the innermost dots of the rays. These ‘innermost dots of the rays’ are only ‘innermost dots’ if you choose to define the dots that are closer to the centre of the figure as a separate entity (a ring). In truth all of the dots in the image have the same status (other than that of their position), all being simply dots in lines, it’s just that the ones closest to the centre most easily form a ring when interpreted by our brains. Our brains can interpret the second set of dots as a secondary ring because you can, when you concentrate slightly, see that they are linked into this formation by association with their neighbours, although more loosely  than is the case with the emphatic inner ring.  What you won’t notice though is that the next set of dots outwards also form a ring, as do the next set and the next set all the way out to the end of the rows of dots. You can’t see this because for all of the dots beyond the secondary ring the dots are too well separated for the eye to associate them with each other. Somewhere in the space between the secondary ring of dots and the next dots outwards a threshold is crossed at which the brain can’t hold the dots together as a ring – the association is snapped.

It’s interesting that this post was intended to be about the relatively complex image at the top of the post, but I’ve spent most of my time dissecting the simpler image of the underlying element.  Fortunately, the points that I’ve made about the underlying element are exactly the points that can be applied to the more complex image, and thankfully without the excessively complex structures within the complex image conspiring to befuddle the brain.

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