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Introduction

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Detail of a self-portrait by Chuck Close. Viewed from a short distance, this painting appears to be an abstract grid of vividly colored squares and ovals. But, when viewed from farther away, the local colors blend and we begin to perceive a spectacle-framed eye. The interplay between these local and global features, which are conveyed by discrete visual pathways, gives the portrait its particular dynamism.

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Chuck Close has prosopagnosia, or difficulty in recognizing faces; his technique of flattening and subdividing an image into manageable elements enhances his ability to both perceive and portray the face. The complete painting is shown above. (Reproduced, with permission, from digital image: copyright the Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY; Copyright Chuck Close, courtesy of The Pace Gallery.)

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… one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of these squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a dreary morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.*

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The taste of the madeleine dipped in tea is one of the most famous evocations of sensory experience in literature. Proust's description of the conscious nature of sensation and memory provides profound insights into some of the subjects that we shall explore in the next few chapters. His description of the shape of the pastries on the plate, the warmth of the tea, and the mingled flavors of tea and cake remind us that knowledge of the world arises through the senses.

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Perceptions begin in receptor cells that are sensitive to one or another kind of stimulus energy. Most sensations are identified with a particular type of stimulus. Thus, light of short wavelength falling on the eye is seen as blue, and sugar on the tongue tastes sweet. How the quantitative aspects of physical stimuli correlate with the sensations they evoke is the subject of psychophysics. Additional information about ...

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