There’s that old adage: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Images are one of the major transmissions of information, and attempt to represent a particular essence and recreate an experience in the audience. The blogs http://frankensteinsbrides.tumblr.com and http://dash-of-dark.tumblr.com try to evoke an anxiety and melancholy in their audience through subtle images (and sometimes not so subtle) of horror.
But we often take for granted just how much we are wired to respond to images, and how much impact they have on us. The philosopher Stephen Asma writes about the evolutionary history of the hominid imagination and states: “The mind’s ability to improvise stories was preceded by its ability to improvise gestures, tools, and images” (103). Before we were able to think in abstraction, our representational associations were visual. Our first associations as the human race were embodied cognition, not linguistic conceptions. Even as “modern humans”, we still begin our journey feeling and seeing our way through the world as children.
Still, there is a bias (especially in Western scholarship) to only associate knowledge and thinking with logic and abstraction. This is a particularly harmful hegemony when put into the context of Teratology. If information isn’t nicely packaged in linear models and supported by rigorous experimentation, then is doesn’t count as real knowledge and therefore it’s less significant. Less significant, the impact and transmission of that instinctual information is brushed aside. The world is a monstrous place and we are constantly bombarded by visceral information we must shift through, not only for our survival in the case of danger, but also in order to be Good. Compounded by social media and the internet, the ease of information transmission has overloaded our senses with images of terrorist decapitations, gang violence, and rape pornography. Even on the lighter side of the scale, turning on the television has become a game of Russian Roulette. You never know what you’re going to see.
Research is still out on what impact this will have on the human psyche individually, and on the whole as the first generation to completely develop in the “Age of Information” grows up. System I of our brain, which is wired to respond visceral and physiological to threats, is still reacting to all this information. It takes a conscious effort on our part to engage System II that employs rational and abstractive thought. We don’t know why that picture of a creepy clown disturbs us, but it does. It takes extra time and energy to think: “It’s just a picture, calm down. Plus, most clowns aren’t scary. They are just normal people with a normal job. Even if there was a creepy clown, I can deal with it by calling the police, etc.” Employing System II every time we hear something on the radio, see something on TV, read something in an email, or respond to a ping on our phone is exhausting. Sometimes we just let things slide.
Regardless of whether or not we do interrogate every piece of information and process it consciously, there is still the subconscious impact we don’t have any control over. Those images settle to the bottom of our mind where it’ll fester to produce a ghost that will haunt our cognitive basement. Perhaps seeing a video of a burning school will stir anxieties about parenthood. Maybe that murder meme you thought was hilarious will stir the pot of your dreaming mind and force you to face something you haven’t been wanting to deal with. There’s no telling when you’re dealing with the murky and still mysterious world of the mind. Images have power and long before marketers were using them to get you to vote for their politician or buy their product, religions were using them to represent the divine mysteries and artists used them to capture knowledge. Images are able to tap into the primordial self and unlock the doors of Being. With such a fearsome key, perhaps a moment may be spared to think about which doors to open.
Asma, Stephen T. The Evolution of Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Print.