Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Events NYC | 2d Perceptions of a 3d World

“What Does the Brain Do? Questioning Perception, Consciousness, and Free Will” was the title of a debate taking place at the Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK) of NYU, as part of the “Walls and Bridges” series by Villa Gillet —one of the many events on neuroscience presented to a general audience which are recently quite frequent in NYC.

The debate was announced as “Neurosciences can provide unexpected insights into free will by questioning how we see, hear and feel. To what extent do our decisions, thoughts and actions depend on our perceptions? Perhaps the best way to understand what the brain is doing is by studying what happens when it breaks down.”

Such an important title immediately attracted my attention, although I felt dubious that such extensive topics could be explored (even if only surfaced) in a two-hour presentation. In fact in the debate there were not too many references to consciousness or free will. Yet I found very interesting some of the presentation focusing on abnormalities in perceptions and how reality can be experienced very differently by people with major problems in visual perception.
Oliver Sacks’s presentation focused on loss of stereoscopic vision. Sacks, a neurologist physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, has recently published a book “The Mind’s Eye”, where he writes about being diagnosed with a rare eye tumor which caused loss of vision on his right side, therefore his stereoscopic vision, which enables the perception of depth. Dr. Sack had to learn to compensate his loss of by adapting to move in a “flat” world and experienced how perceptual problems bring major loss of functionality.

The neurobiologist Susan Barry lived through an opposite experience (from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional world) belongs to: crossed-eyed from early infancy, she lived in a flat world until when as an adult she regained stereoscopic vision. In her presentation she mentioned the quality of cognitive conscious experience and how the perception of space can be altered. The perception of solid and void was distorted as one of the most basic experiences we give for granted, such as looking ourselves in the mirror or watching the snow falling.

Leaving the event I thought of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions the 1884 novel by Edwin Abbott Abbott, the fantasy of a two-dimensional world (Flatland) inhabited by geometric figures and narrated by a square: a geometric definition of world is so much part of our daily life, either we are aware or not…

PS I dealt quite extensively with the topic of stereoscopic vision in digital visualization and “virtual reality” in my 1996 book “Designing Digital Space”