In her 1984 novel The Lover, Marguerite Duras wrote that “the art of seeing has to be learned.”
Cognitive science now knows that our brains invest a great deal of resources in learning to unsee and tune out irrelevant stimuli, which is why “when you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”
Referencing a wonderful and wonderfully obscure 1960 book called Space and Light by a surgeon named Marius von Senden, Annie Dillard relays the numerous case studies of the first generation of patients on whom safe cataract surgeries were performed.
The notion of shadow and light was particularly incomprehensible, for shadow is evidence of depth and dimension — something the patients had never experienced and thus something that made no sense at all, that presented them with “the world unraveled from reason.”
The newly sighted were suddenly so overwhelmed by the world of light, form, and space that many retreated into their old ways of navigation and sensemaking, choosing to keep their eyes shut and to orient themselves via their familiar senses.
This, of course, is a metaphor at once incredibly elegant and incredibly jarring for how we all react to overwhelming new knowledge — especially knowledge about ourselves and ourselves in relation to our formerly familiar surroundings, our suddenly confusing inner world in relation to the suddenly nonsensical outer.