Monday, July 08, 2024

People Who See Chickens that We Cannot

Karntakuringu Jakurrpa

In 1961, Professor John Wilson of the African Institute of London University published a paper in which he tells of an experience he had while trying to use film to teach an audience. He was working with a sanitary inspector who had the specific goal of educating people about the importance of getting rid of standing water in order to combat mosquito born illnesses like malaria. They chose film as their medium because the audience was illiterate. They likewise knew that the audience wasn't familiar with film, so they kept things deliberate and simple. There was only one character, the sanitary inspector himself, talking to the camera, giving careful demonstrations. They screened it to an audience of 30 or so who were then asked what they had seen. 

"The chicken," they answered.

There hadn't been a chicken in the film, but every member of the audience talked about seeing the chicken. Upon further questioning, they said they had also seen the sanitary inspector, but he hadn't made nearly the impression as this non-existent chicken. It was only when the filmmakers went back and studied their film frame-by-frame did they finally see that, indeed, a chicken, startled by something, had briefly flown across the corner of the screen. It had appeared for less than a second in a five minute film. Until this audience had seen it, the makers of the film had been literally blind to the chicken.

After consulting with an artist and an eye-specialist, they learned that people who are familiar with film, don't actually focus on the screen itself, but rather at a point just in front of the screen in order to take in the whole picture. This audience, however, had instead focused on the screen itself, the way we might do on a printed page, not seeing the big picture, but scanning the images segment by segment in all their details, one at a time, never making a story of it, while seeing the chicken as clear as day. 

There are few people in the world today who are film illiterate, but studies done on people who are find that there is a whole host of incomprehensible things found in film that we take for granted. Moving pictures are not, as we suppose, representations of reality, but rather a collection of conventions that we've learned to decode. Panoramic sweeps, for instance, are confusing to film illiterate audiences: it seems to them that the whole world is moving. When a character steps out of the frame it appears as if they have inexplicably disappeared. They cannot accept the convention of a person sitting quietly who is then brought into a close-up. It appears to them that the person has grown bizarrely larger. In other words, what we perceive as an accurate representation of reality is really just a collection of conventions and symbols that we've learned to interpret, but in the process of becoming film literate, we make ourselves blind to the chickens. 

I find myself wondering if this isn't the consequence of all learning. We are born scanning our world which is a miasma of sensory input. We're not, at first, even able to distinguish between our senses. In their book The World of the Newborn, Daphne and Charles Maurer write about newborns:

"His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors (as we do) . . . His world is a melee of pungent aromas -- and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery."

There is no line between the senses. They are all one. The very notion that we have five distinct senses instead of the single all-encompassing one of infancy is itself a product of our having learned a set of conventions and symbols that may be useful, but in fact removes us from the actual reality that we are born into. So we leave behind the aromas of sight and sound, unlearning this way of perceiving the world, in favor of what our social world teaches us.

It's bigotry to believe that our various literacies -- in reading or film watching or dividing up our senses -- represent "progress" or superiority. The people who see chickens that we cannot see are not ahead of us or behind, they are simply attending to different conventions. Babies who can taste what they see and hear what they feel only lose this ability because we have created a world in which they must learn to see with their eyes and taste with their tongue.

As adults who work with young children, we are so steeped in our various literacies that we mistake them for reality. Instead of feeling that we must "teach" children to "read" the world as we do, perhaps we should make the effort to enter into their "illiterate" world, which is, in many ways, much closer to reality than the conventions and symbols we rely upon. Of course, we may never fully understand, we may never again be able to see the chicken or enter into the hallucinogenic perfumery, but by "listening," as Eleanor Duckworth advises, with our "whole selves," we find that children are a window into ways of perceiving and being that we've forgotten. 


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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