Vision, in depth

    One thing I learned from Eye Candy: Science, Sight, and Art, a World Science Festival event, other than that legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer (or God, as moderator Lawrence Weschler
called him in his introduction) is all kinds of amazing, is that
impaired stereo vision can be beneficial if you want to be a famous
artist.

Stereo vision—or stereopsis—allows humans to perceive
depth. Simply put, our brains translate the information taken in from
each eye to form a single, three-dimensional image. But when eyes don’t
track together—when someone is cross-eyed (eyes facing in) or wall-eyed
(eyes facing out)—the perception of depth is impacted.

Margaret Livingstone,
Dana Alliance member and professor of neurobiology at Harvard, has
studied photos of a large number of successful artists. By looking at
eye tracking and light reflection in the artists’ eyes, she determined
that stereoblindness is more common in artists than in the population
at large. Even Rembrandt appears to have been stereoblind.

This
is not to say that people with strabismus, or eye misalignment, should
go without treatment in the hopes of becoming an artist—untreated
strabismus can have serious consequences. But it does mean that an
artist’s ability to flatten a vividly three-dimensional world may have
a great deal to do with how the artist’s eyes and brain perceive depth.

But what about the non-artists among us? Christopher Tyler—who, among many other accomplishments, wrote the algorithm behind the Magic Eye images—presented three random-dot stereograms,
which the audience looked at through 3D glasses. Shapes popped out at
some audience members right way, while others (like me) took more time
to see them, or didn’t see them at all (I saw two of the three).

The
reasons for these discrepancies were not discussed at length. It could
be that some people’s eyes converge more quickly, allowing a shape to
pop out and the illusion of depth to be created. Some people might be
stereoblind to some degree. But it is clear that the way we process
visual information varies greatly from one person to the next.

But
on the most basic level, how we translate what we see to paper has
remained surprisingly static. As cognitive Harvard psychologist Patrick Cavanaugh explained, line drawings on the walls of ancient caves depict animals in the same ways that modern line drawings do.

And
yet line drawings don’t exist in the world. From a young age, Jules
Feiffer knew that the world was made up of shapes, tones, colors, and
dimensions. But drawings making use of only these elements didn’t look
how the world looks. Our brains know how to interpret and add meaning
to lines—they are something that the visual system evolved to
understand. “Our connection to the [art] itself is what excites us,”
said Feiffer. Interpreting lines, especially lines drawn well, requires
“the beauty of imagination.”

    –Johanna Goldberg

3 responses

  1. That’s really interesting. I wonder how much of that interpretation of shapes in the world is conditioned, and whether it varies across cultures – would someone from elsewhere in the world draw a stick figure the same way you or (a neater artst than) I would?

  2. That’s really interesting. I wonder how much of that interpretation of shapes in the world is conditioned, and whether it varies across cultures – would someone from elsewhere in the world draw a stick figure the same way you or (a neater artst than) I would?

  3. Hi, Shoshana.
    According to Dr. Cavanaugh, basic lines (like those used to draw a horse, for example) do not vary across cultures. Alternate uses of lines–those indicating motion, heat, or smell, for example–do vary.

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