August 3, 2006
From chapter 4 of The Singularity Is Near:
Although we have the illusion of receiving high-resolution images from our eyes, what the optic nerve actually sends to the brain is just outlines and clues about points of interest in our visual field. We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories that interpret a series of extremely low-resolution movies that arrive in parallel channels. In a 2001 study published in Nature, Frank S. Werblin, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and doctoral student Boton Roska, M.D., showed that the optic nerve carries ten to twelve output channels, each of which carries only minimal information about a given scene. One group of what are called ganglion cells sends information only about edges (changes in contrast). Another group detects only large areas of uniform color, whereas a third group is sensitive only to the backgrounds behind figures of interest.
“Even though we think we see the world so fully, what we are receiving is really just hints, edges in space and time,” says Werblin. “These 12 pictures of the world constitute all the information we will ever have about what’s out there, and from these 12 pictures, which are so sparse, we reconstruct the richness of the visual world. I’m curious how nature selected these 12 simple movies and how it can be that they are sufficient to provide us with all the information we seem to need.”