Visual Perception and the Camera Metaphor

We live by myths and metaphors and some of the myths and metaphors we use in risk are unhelpful. We construct guiding principles that we live by (myths-symbols) and express those myth-symbols in metaphors we use to explain what we believe. These metaphors (Lakhoff and Johnson) then become the way we ‘frame’ and ‘anchor’ our worldview/story about what we think is true. We use myths (Jung and Ricoeur) and metaphors as a lens (filter) through which we see the world. This is why perception is constructed (Hoffman – Visual Intelligence) not objective. Two such myths are the eye-as-camera and brain-as-computer metaphors.

If we use the computer metaphor to understand human personhood (mind) we end up with a model of the brain-as-a-computer myth and miss the mystery and complexity of embodiment. This then enables a small jump in faith to launch into the nonsense of ‘machine learning’, when we know machines can’t ‘learn’. Without imagination, discovery, the unconscious, emotions, feelings, heart-gut knowing, dreaming and poetics, there is no real learning. The repetition of algorithms is not learning and data is not knowledge.

Similarly, the attraction to the metaphor of the eye-as-camera to explain perception is nonsensical. Such a comparison draws one into the mechanics myth as if the human eye is just an object that absorbs images. The idea that the human eye absorbs images as they appear is smashed by all the research into human visual perception. There is simply no comparison between the workings of a camera and the human eye despite vain efforts to draw such a comparison. Such a comparison is more wishful attribution than reality and demonstrates more about the binary assumptions of the person projecting such a comparison.

‘The camera never lies, because the camera doesn’t have to tell what it sees – but our visual system does.’ (Snowden, Thompson and Troscianko – Basic Vision, an introduction to our visual perception, p.3).

‘A photograph gives the illusion that a thing is being captured but its about what something looks like when it is photographed, not how it is experienced’.

Even if one only thinks mechanically the human retina is nothing like a camera lens. Your average camera might have 24 megapixels, your eye has about 130 million megapixels. Of those about 6 million are devoted to interpreting things as coloured and the rest just see black and white (Enns, The Thinking Eye, The Seeing Brain). The central part of our visual field The Macula has more pixels per square mm that the best camera in the world, approx. 150,000 pixels per 1mm. But even to talk about the human eye as a lens is misleading.

Our visual system comprises more than a lens and an optic nerve, everything about the human eye is interconnected with the human body and brain. The computers and microchips attached to a camera are pathetic compared to the way the visual system works for a human especially as the human brain doesn’t work anything computer.

A camera doesn’t have an unconscious but a human eye does (the lateral geniculate nucleus). The eye has an unconscious that compares images between both eyes, assembles and selects parts (automatically) it deems significant into 3D images and then sends them to the brain for processing. At the same time the unconscious in the embodied human also sends signals to the eye moving the eyeball so the macula can focus on something of deemed significance and eliminate a focus on something else. These signals can be determined by bodily emotions and feelings unknown to the eye. The unconscious also rejects much incoming bandwidth sending only a small fraction of data to the brain. This interconnectivity and interaffectivity (Fuchs) is automatic in human perception/vision. In this way we also know that we perceive things through our skin! (Pallasma). That is, we see things through what we feel. The skin to heart system is also a part of vision.

Most of the time humans are not conscious of what they are seeing. At the moment as you read this text you are in a conscious mode (Mind 1 – ) that consciously focuses your mind to send information from your central vision only, so you can read this text and move your eyes from left to right as culturally determined. The moment you stop reading and without moving your eyes you pick up and see things in peripheral view that you couldn’t see a few seconds ago. But the moment you move your peripheral vision to consciously see beyond the text, you can no longer read.

In many ways the human eye is nothing like a video camera. Our eyes are able to look around a scene and dynamically adjust based on subject matter, whereas cameras capture a single still image in multiple frames depending on where the camera is pointed. Our eyes can compensate as we focus on regions of varying brightness, and can look around to encompass a broader angle of view, or can alternately focus on objects at a variety of distances.

You can’t separate the eye from the mind (embodied person). This is why our eyes ‘interpret’ our reality and can be easily ‘fooled’ into seeing things that are not there or that are not present (real). This is where the social psychology of perception needs to be understood (Balcetis and Lassiter). Most of what we see is socially constructed. Our unconscious is socially motivated and what we see is contextually-culturally regulated. This is evidenced by the Einstellung Effect ( ALL vision is social psychologically determined, there is no neutral objective sense of vision.

There are so many ways to demonstrate that a human eye is not like a camera and we do this often in our Introduction to the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) Module ( -currently being offered free on line). This is why I always include optical illusions in the CLLR quarterly newsletter ( Every optical illusion we see demonstrates that visual perception is a matter of interpretation, what Ricouer describes as ‘hermeneutical vision’. This is how we are ‘taught’ to read.

In the SPoR workshop we often show the image of spots (Figure One. Spots on the Page)

Figure One. Spots on the Page


When you first look at this image one only sees a bunch of dots and blotches. When we are told what to see, we can then see it. Can you see the Dalmatian dog? Can you see the number 74? Surely, a dog or a number is there or it isn’t? After all, if vision is neutral and objective like a camera then such images must be objective and not contextually interpreted. The following allows you to see the dog amongst the dots:


Now to find the 74?

The first 5 people to see the 74 please send me your solution ( and I will post you a complimentary copy of my latest book The Social Psychology of Risk Handbook.

We should resist such metaphors as eye-as-camera and computer-as-brain because they don’t help us understand risk or perception. The naïve binary approach to understanding perception and vision that is common to Safety discourse only leads it down the path of constructing incident investigations to match false perceptions constructed to its own assumptions.

If you want to understand visual perception then dumping the binary mentalitie (socially constructed myth) and simplistic metaphors is essential. In particular, get rid of the naïve metaphor that the human eye is like a camera. There is no disconnect between vision, visual system, personhood, mind, the unconscious and enculturation. Furthermore, our culture constructs myths and symbols that we create to interpret what we see and our collective unconscious constructs the myths we find favourable to our worldview.

If you want to learn more on visual perception the following references are attached.


Balcetis, E., and Lassiter, G., (eds.) (2010) Social Psychology of Visual Perception. Psychology Press. New York.

Enns, J., (2004) The Thinking Eye, The Seeing Brain, Explorations in Visual Preception. Nortons. New York.

Fuchs, T., (2018) Ecology of the Brain, The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind. Oxford University Press. London.

Hoffman, D., (2000) Visual Intelligence, How We Create What We See. Nortons. New York.

Jung, C.G., (1968) Man and His Symbols. Dell. New York.

Lakhoff, G., and Johnson, M., (1980) Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press. New York. (

Pallasma, J., (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. Wiley and Sons. New York. (

Ricoeur, P., (1975) The Rule of Metaphor, The Creation of Meaning in Language. Routledge. London.

Snowden, R., Thompson P., and Troscianko, T., (2006) Basic Vision, an introduction to our visual perception. Oxford. London.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

3 Replies to “Visual Perception and the Camera Metaphor”

  1. Posts like this make this blog unique. It sent me thumbing through a battered copy of USA by John dos Passos that employs an experimental technique using four narrative modes, which includes a method entitled “Camera Eye” to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind of a narrator:

    It is far more enlightening than legislation, codes of practice, Australian Standards and the relentless turgid sludge from the AIHS, SWA and other blogs.

    By the way, I required assistance from one of my young daughters to find the number 74

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