Introduction to How Images Think (excerpt)

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Throughout this book reference is made either directly or indirectly to debates about perception, mind, consciousness, and the role of images and culture in forming and shaping how humans interact with the world around them. As more knowledge is gained about the human mind, embodied and holistic, the role of culture and images has changed. Images are no longer just representations or interpreters of human actions. They have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology—mediators, progenitors, interfaces—as much reference points for information and knowledge as visualizations of human creativity. However, the relationship between human beings and the cultural artifacts they use and create is by no means direct or transparent. Human consciousness is not passive or simply a product of the cultural, social, or political context within which humans live and struggle. Although the cognitive sciences have dreamed of developing a clearer picture of how the mind operates and although there have been tremendous advances in understanding human thought, the human mind remains not only difficult to understand but relatively opaque in the information that can be gathered from it (Searle 1998, 83). Notwithstanding numerous efforts to “picture” and “decode” the ways in which the mind operates, profound questions remain about the relationships among mind, body, and brain and how all of the elements of consciousness interact with a variety of cultural and social environments and artifacts. How Images Think explores the rich intersections of image creation, production,and communication within this context of debate about the mind and humaconsciousness.

In addition, the book examines cultural discourses about images and the impact of the digital revolution on the use of images in the communications process. The digital revolution is altering the fabric of research and practice in the sciences, arts, and engineering and challenging many conventional wisdoms about the seemingly transparent relationships between images and meaning, mind and thought, as well as culture and identity. At the same time, a complex cultural and biological topology is being drawn of consciousness in order to illuminate and illustrate mental processes. I labor under no illusions that this topology will solve centuries of debate and discussion about how and why humans think and act. I do, however, make the point that images are a central feature of the many conundrums researchers have encountered in their examination of mind and body. One example of the centrality of images to the debate about human consciousness has been the appearance of increasingly sophisticated imaging and scanning technologies that try to “picture” the brain’s operations. The results of research in this area have been impressive, and the impact on the cultural view of the brain has been enormous.


In general, this research has led to a more profound understanding of the rich complexity of the brain’s operations. Since I am not a specialist in these disciplines, I do not comment in detail on the medical or scientific claims that have been made about the usefulness of the research. My main concern is the role played by images as the output of scanning procedures and the many different ways in which those images are appropriated and used. The use of scanned images is one of many indicators of the significant role played by image-worlds in sustaining research across the sciences. For better or worse, depending on the perspectives one holds and the research bias one has, images are the raw material of scanning technologies like Magnetic Resonance Imagings (MRIs). In other words, the brain is visualized at a topological level, mapped according to various levels of excitation of a chemical and electrical nature, and researched and treated through the knowledge gained. MRI technology captures the molecular structure of human tissue, which produces enough of a magnetic charge to allow the signals to be reassembled into images. This is primarily a biological model and leaves many questions unanswered about mind, thought, and relationships between perception and thinking. In particular, the issues of how images are used to explain biological processes needs to be framed by cultural argument and cultural criticism.

These lacunae would not be an issue except that the use of images entails far more than the transparent relationship of scanning to results would suggest. The biological metaphors at work make it appear as if the interpretation of scanning results were similar to looking at a wound or a suture. The effort is to create as much transparency as possible between the scans and their interpretation. But, as with any of the issues that are normally raised about interpretive processes, it is important to ask questions about the use of images for these purposes from a variety of perspectives, including, and most important, a cultural one.

The use of scanning technologies does not happen in a vacuum. Scientists spend a great deal of time cross-referencing their work and checking the interpretations that they make. (Many issues about image quality arise in the scanning process. These include, contrast, resolution, noise, and distortion. Any one of these elements can change the relationship between images and diagnosis.) The central issue for me is how to transfer the vast knowledge that has been gained from the study of images in a variety of disciplines, from cultural studies to communications, into disciplines like medicine, computer sciences and engineering, which have been central to the invention and use of scanning technologies.

In the same vein, how can the insights of the neurosciences be brought to bear in a substantial fashion on the research being pursued by cultural analysts, philosophers, and psychologists (Beaulieu 2002)? If, as I often mention in How Images Think, interpretations about the impact of technologies on humans flow from reductive notions of mind and thought, it is largely because I believe that consciousness cannot solely be understood in an empirical fashion. Even though a great deal of work has been published by writers such as
John Searle, Jerry Fodor, and Noam Chomsky on the relationships of mind to thought, as well as on the infusion of biological metaphors into speculation about thinking and perception, many of their insights do not cross the boundaries into the sciences (Searle 1998, 1992; Fodor 2000; Chomsky 2000). This is a matter of disciplinary boundaries and the silos that exist between different research pursuits. It would not necessarily be a problem were it not for the manner in which some perspectives actually filter through and others don’t. I am an advocate of interdisciplinary studies and research. As someone who has studied the many ways in which images operate as information, objects for interpretation, sites for empathy and creativity, and windows onto the world, I feel that there is a need to infuse image analysis with as many perspectives as possible (Burnett 1995, 1996a, 1996b, 1999). Interdisciplinarity is very much about crossing boundaries, but it is also about rigor within disciplines themselves. It is the application of that rigor across disciplines that interests me and is a constant subtheme of this book (Latour 1999).