Vision, Space, and Thought
A change in visual perception can change how you think.
Posted Oct 26, 2014
As I reread Rudolf Arnheim’s brilliant book, Visual Thinking, I wondered again how much our vision shapes our thinking. Anyone who has undergone a dramatic improvement in vision is in a special position to address this question. When I began to see with stereopsis, I felt myself immersed in my surroundings rather than looking in on them, and this change also altered the way I imagined and connected the spaces around me.
Prior to gaining stereopsis, if I found myself inside a room with four windowless walls, the world stopped at those four walls. While I could think about what was outside the room, I never did. What was outside and what was inside were barely connected. If, at that time, we had approached the science buildings on Mount Holyoke’s campus, and you had asked me to point from the outside to the location of my office on the inside, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. When I went inside, I left the outdoors behind and entered a completely separate world, a separate frame of reference, whose only connection to the outside world was the door that I had just walked through. In Harry Potter’s world, the wizards could “apparate” – in one moment, they were in one location and then, in the next instance, appear in a completely different place. For me going from outdoors to indoors or going from one room to another was like apparition.
But this changed when I gained stereopsis. For example, one day, while sitting in my bedroom, I thought about my daughter in the adjacent room. In the past, I would have connected the two of us by imagining myself walking out my bedroom door, turning 90 degrees to the right, taking a step, making another 90 degree turn to the right, and entering the door to her bedroom. I would have recreated in my mind the linear, two dimensional path I would take to reach her. But there was another three-dimensional way to think about her location. Only a thin wall separated the space that made up her room from the space that made up mine.
This way of connecting spaces comes easily to me now because of my stereo viewing experiences - in particular views created by window reflections. For example, the workout room in my college gym is separated from an inside corridor by a plate glass window. While working out, I can look through the plate glass window into the corridor and the wall beyond it. Before gaining stereopsis, I would have seen my reflection on the pane of the plate glass window. But, now, I see my reflection as floating in the corridor space on the other side of the window. As I move further from the window toward the inside of the workout room, my reflection moves further from the window into the corridor outside the room, and then right through the wall! The wall is no barrier to my reflection which, after all, is not tangible. Experiences like this give me a sense of the world beyond walls, a sense that I never appreciated before gaining stereopsis.