Learning to see in three dimensions

Jonah Lehrer’s interview with Sue Barry is a fascinating look at the neurology of perception. Moving from 2-dimensional vision to 3-dimensional vision implies a basic shift in perception of the world. Reminds me of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, in which beings in worlds with more dimensions tried to explain their worlds to beings in fewer-dimensional worlds.

Tangent: I wonder if we could ever “see” in four dimensions, or more. String theory, where are you?

Sue Barry:

Many people tell me that the world looks about the same to them whether they look with one eye or with two. They don’t think stereovision is all that important. What they don’t realize is that their brain is using a lifetime of past visual experiences to fill in the missing stereo information. Seeing in 3-D provides a fundamentally different way of seeing and interpreting the world than seeing with one eye. When I began to see in stereo, it came as an enormous surprise and a great gift.

For the first time, I could see the volumes of space between different tree branches, and I liked immersing myself in those inviting pockets of space. As I walk about, leaves, pine needles, and flowers, – even light fixtures and ceiling pipes – seem to float on a medium more substantial than air. Snow no longer appears to fall in one plane slightly in front of me. Now, the snowflakes envelope me, floating by in layers and layers of depth. It’s been seven years since I gained stereovision, but ordinary views like these still fill me with a deep sense of wonder and joy.

UPDATE, 1:15 pm: I’m increasingly fascinated by the flood of emerging insights into the human brain. For some reason, this post links in my mind (my brain?) two very disparate sciences: neurology and string theory. I can’t explain string theory very well, but one of its major implications/insights is that there are at least 11 dimensions – 10 spatial and one time. The subject of this article, Sue Barry, previously had no capability of seeing in three dimensions, only two. However, we know her and everyone else to exist in three spatial dimensions, despite her inability to see them.

It really gives me pause as to whether we exist in many more spatial dimensions, but can only perceive the standard three. Just as in Abbott’s Flatland, the supposedly two dimensional creatures actually were three dimensional – they just didn’t know it.

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