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March 5, 2010

Personal Perceptual Centers

This post continues from my post entitled Perceptual Centers.

Your Personal Perceptual Center

Rudolf Arnheim pointed out (in The Power of the Center)that "the most important center a person comes to know is that of his own self." He calls it our personal center.

"The personal center of the perceptual world is normally experienced as being between the eyes or the ears." (Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center)

Francisco de Goya's "personal perceptual center"
from self-portrait by Francisco de Goya
(1746-1828) - 1794

The idea of a "personal perceptual center" is quite easy to comprehend because we ourselves are at the center of one whether or not we've thought of it quite that way before. Once we understand what a "personal center" is, it makes it much easier to understand what all perceptual centers are about. The idea behind this particular post is to awaken understanding of this concept through some examples.

Our personal perceptual center in the "area between our eyes" reaches out to whatever we observe from that point (in other words, it encompasses our "visual field").

Example 1: The King's Point of View

Think of yourself as a king who has come out of his castle (with his entourage) and is standing in the middle of the village amongst the crowd. You look all around and realize that all that you see belongs to you. Virtually all the people within eyesight are your subjects and are at your beck and call. As you move toward them people curtsy or bow, then move out of your way. Small children run toward you and hand you flowers, then back away. The carriage and horses are there for you. Doors and gates are opened for you. Everything and everyone is affected by your presence and to some degree or another you are affected by the presence of what and whom you observe within your visual field (which is probably fairly large when you're the king).

Read more about this pcture under NOTES at bottom of this post

The "King" at his personal center ("It's all about me!")
Click on picture to see in larger size.
Actual title: The King Drinks, 1638
Artist: Jakob Jordaens (1593-1678)

Example 2: Back to the Real World

As the king did, look all around yourself, from close up to as far as you can see in the distance (it may be a nearby interior wall or a distant horizon . . . whatever your surroundings offer you). Think of yourself, there "between your eyes," as being at the center of whatever you can see.

Note: Although we are usually able to turn our heads and look behind ourselves, when we are twisting our necks to see what's to the sides or in back of us we are still looking forward, i.e., in front of our eyes, so our personal perceptual center (between our eyes) is actually more like the base of a wide spotlight rather than the center of a circle, though "spotlight" connotes a neatly symmetrical area, while in fact the area that we visually perceive in front of is usually not actually symmetrical unless it is an empty, perfectly symmetrical space and nothing hinders our view. For most of us, at least, this is seldom, if ever, the case.

Now imagine yourself moving into the world around you, walking through the house, across the street, down the sidewalk, around a circle of benches, onto a bus, into a store, down an aisle...or wherever you go on your imaginary journey. As you move through the scene in your mind's eye, think of how you continue to be in your personal center wherever you go (i.e., your personal center does not stay back where you started out but is always wherever you are as you move through the scene).

"In daily life a person moves through the environment with himself as the persistent center. The environment arranges itself around this center in a constantly changing configuration." - Rudolf Arnheim (TPOC)

As you wander around, you are aware of relationships of everything you see to your personal center that's right there between your eyes, and how your relationship to what you see changes as you move to different places. You see things (chairs, tables, closed and open doors, walls, toys, people, buildings, trees, curbs, paths, cars, animals, etc.) as obstacles or non-obstacles, as enticing or repellent, available to you or not, annoying or comforting, threatening or non-threatening, maybe even attracted by you or initimidated by you, possibly momentarily of interest, hard to turn away from, or barely noticed as if "background noise," and so on. Notice all the pushes and pulls between you and what you observe. Some things pull you in, some things repel you, some seem to open up for you and you glide right by them. Notice also that as you move toward things, they seem to be moving toward you even if they are standing still, then they recede behind you as you walk by them.

When you are seeing what's around you as if you are at the center of it all, you might imagine that you are in a scene in which you are the principal actor. (You are thinking, perhaps, of egocentric people?)

e·go·cen·tric, adj.

3. Philosophy
a. Viewed or perceived from one's own mind as a center.

At the Edge of Another Center

Now imagine yourself not at the center of what you see, but at an outer edge of some other center.


Not being an "it's all about me" kind of person, there are many such experiences in my life that I can recall. For instance, I well remember sitting petrified in a shallow balcony (or it seemed shallow to me, as if I could easily tip out of it and fall into the audience below, since I am afraid of heights) as high and as far away from the stage as it is possible to be at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. It would have been impossible to imagine myself as at the center of anything other than my own self, which seemed to me at that time as tiny as a pinpoint, though as heavy as lead. In fact the "center" in that scene, which I was at the outer edge of, was the stage far below (though some famous person sitting in an audience might be pointed out and have the spotlight turned on him or her and suddenly the center, momentarily, would be where they are sitting - providing us with a good example of something that's very common: a center that is not in the center).

Photo from Wikimedia is in the public domain.

Metropolitan Opera House, November 28, 1937
The person the arrow is pointing to is probably not feeling at the center of things.

And so we think of ourselves at times as at the center and at other times in a relationship with (sometimes at the edge of) other centers (which need not be personal centers; Arnheim says that "any visual object constitutes a dynamic center because it is the seat of forces issuing from it and converging toward it." - TPOC). I will write about these forces and much more about "centers" in upcoming posts.


Perceptual Centers
Centric Systems
Round Artworks
The Tondo


1) TPOC refers to The Power of the Center, by Rudolf Arnheim.

2) The painting called The King Drinks (above) by Jakob Jordaens is one of several paintings on this same subject, according to a Wikipedia article on Jakob Jordaens. According to the article, at that time in Flanders the Epiphany was celebrated every January 6th. "One person gets to be king for the evening...his subjects are assigned him." So this is not meant to be a picture of a real king. Certainly, though, the "king for a day" must have felt that his personal center was indeed at the center of his little world.

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