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Perceptual Form and Canonical Perspectives of Instagram Seth Dubin December 2012 The psychology of images and perceptual interpretation is not a new subject. Plato first questioned what it was about one instance of an object that made it distinguishably unique yet still identifiable as an instance of that category. For instance, he questioned what makes a cat distinguishable as a cat, yet still recognizable as a certain unique cat. René Descartes then developed the idea that visual perception is learned through interaction with one’s environment. Similarly, Kant described perception as having a framework in which every representation has a time, place, and set of categories which begin to shape the idea of the real occurrence. How do conceptual understandings of objects and ideas relate to visual perceptions, however? Researchers have used the curious case of S.B., a man who went blind at 10 months old and regained vision in his fifties, to test understandings about tactility’s mapping to sight. In 1963, when S.B. regained vision, Gregory and Wallace observed that S.B. instantaneously had the ability to read a wall clock and read capital letters, both of which he had only learned through touch as a young child. S.B. did have problems perceiving depth, however, which suggests that visual perception of 2-dimensional objects can be mapped through senses while visual perception of the 3rd dimension is learned through experience. [1] A similar mapping has been researched between emotion depicted in art and the emotions felt by viewers. David Freedberg writes that a piece of art, whether painting or sculpture, has an emotional resonance on those who view it. We, as viewers, relate to others who show true emotion and soul. As Freedberg quotes from Alberti, “we weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing.” This is true in both physical embodiment and emotional experience. [2] Psychological studies have linked the parts of our brain used for executing actions with the mere action of viewing or observing an action. This is the tool effect in which humans feel embodied in an action simply through sight. Likewise, our emotions follow the embodied effect of expression and movement. [3] Surrounding ourselves with happy images will have a lightening effect on our moods. Likewise, observing a portrait of a confused or saddened person will make us confused or saddened with the artwork. Simply put, we subconsciously involve ourselves with what we look at. When we look at an image, our brains immediately assign to it two instantaneous attributes. We decipher what we are looking at, and we assign a value to it – whether we like something or not and what emotion it gives us. The first attribute, what something is, goes back to Plato’s description of perception. Some things are easier to recognize instantaneously than others and are referred to as “canonical views” or “canonical perspectives” (Palmer, Rosch, and Chase 1981).


It has been determined that the most commonly and quickly identifiable occurrence of an object is the instance that the representation is depicted in its two-dimensional format in its most commonly found state. Bülthoff and Edelman (1992) have theorized why this is. When a brain sees an object for the first time, neurons react in a specific pattern of responses. The brain remembers this pattern of responses, so when it sees the object from the same angle, or one similar to it again, it is able to quickly identify the object. Bülthoff and Edelman have also shown that if two angles of viewing are shown to a person, that person will more quickly be able to identify something that is intermediary to the two angles than be able to identify the object from outside those two angles. [1] We perceptually understand an object from various angles and distances through the experience of approaching, holding, and rotating objects. We therefore categorically group objects and their relatives into their own groups. The process of relating an image to a category works bi-directionally. We see an image and our brain assigns it to a category. Likewise, if we think of a concept, our brain assigns to it an image. This image is most probably the canonical perspective image that Palmer, Rosch, and Chase explained. With these concepts in mind, I was interested in exploring the impression of originality and creativity on Instagram. I wanted to know how user’s photographs related to canonical views. Instagram is a multiplatform photo service that allows users to take photos with mobile phones and add artistic filters to them. Users can then add a caption, hashtags (categories), and comments. Their friends who subscribe to their channel can then see their photos, comment on them, and “favorite” them, letting other people know they liked the photo. Because Instagram is a crowd sourced database of images, patterns and themes become evident. Around this time of the school year, I have begun seeing a common theme in almost every Instagram photo on my feed. During Thanksgiving break, almost every photo was a photo of a family dog, the Thanksgiving dinner spread, or a plate loaded with a Thanksgiving feast. The following week, when most students returned to school, my Instagram feed was flooded with stressed faces, fraternity and sorority tacky Christmas party photos, and pictures of open books and computers in the library. The following weeks, known as Hell Week, Dead Week, and then Finals Week at Georgia Tech, my feed was exclusively filled with photos related to final exams. My friends tagged their photos with hashtags like “stressed,” “finals,” “finalsweek,” etc. The Instagram application also has the option to search public photos by searching for hashtags. I conducted a simple search myself, typing in “finals” and “stressed.” Attached are a sample of the hundreds of photos I came across – both from friends and the public pool of photos.


Set A Within the category of #finals, several subcategories seem to emerge. The most common image in the set is repeated so often, that its creativity (by means of originality) decreases with each repeated instance. This image is a table covered with open books, laptops, computers, and study materials. Sometimes, slight variations to this #finals image convention can make the image stand out and increase it’s creativity. An example of this would be Image 2 with the glasses resting on the book. A story may be extrapolated from this image as it adds another dimension to the image. Image 1 with the empty notebook page is also an original spin on the #finals cliché, as it tells a story of procrastination, confusion, or emptiness. Finally, Image 3, the anatomy drawing, focuses on a specific subject. Image 4 still depicts the usual study materials, but it juxtaposes the student’s face next to it, and thus adds another dimension to the image’s interpretation. The highlighted photos defy the canonical perspective of this category, and may therefore be considered more creative simply because they are more original. Set B The second category to emerge would be the less than ideal sleeping arrangements during finals week. The four images shown each convey slightly different contexts, thus they each have some unique originality. Set C Memes are an Internet sensation that rely on juxtaposing an image, usually one with cultural value, with phrases that steer the image in a new direction. The #finals memes were most probably not created by the Instagram users who posted them, so this in itself defies the purpose of Instagram and original user creativity. Set D #Finals food was another emerging category of images, and often contained hash tags like “#stress.” Image 5 and Image 6 each stray from the convention and tell of unique situations.

The highlighted photos in the sets stray from the common perceptions of #finals. This may correlate to the creators’ creativity as they do not conform to the canonical perspective that most users have of #finals. Instagram may instill a false illusion of original creativity in users. Furthermore, as users who frequent Instagram begin to see a prescribed set of photos and a “right” way to take a photo, they begin to develop the perception of the ideal form – in this case, the #finals canonical form. This depletes originality in any future endeavors to capture and present what “finals” looks like to them by removing originality, and thus decreasing creativity.


[1] Guy Wallis, Heinrich Bulthoff. "Learning to Recognize Objects." Perceptual Learning Ed. Poggio, Manfred Fahle and Tomaso. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print. [2] Freedberg, David. "Movement, Embodiment, Emotion." Th. Dufrenne and A.C. Taylot, Eds. Cannibalismes Disciplinaires, Quand L'histoire De L'art Et L'anthropologie Se Rencontrent. Paris: MusĂŠe du quai Branly. 37-61. Print. [3] David Freedberg, Vittorio Gallese. "Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Esthetic Experience." TRENDS in Cognitive Science 11.5 (2007). Print.


SET A

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3


Image 4


SET B

SET C


SET D

Image 5

Image 6


SET E

Perceptual Form and Canonical Perspective on Instagram  

This paper explores psychology of perceived "creativity" on the popular social media photo sharing application, Instagram.

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