Flatland, or Life in Two Dimensions
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
There's an old story called Flatland about a society that exists in two dimensions. Its inhabitants are polygons and lines, and they move around on one flat plane. They can't perceive three-dimensional objects or worlds like our own. Because their whole world is flat, it's hard for them to even imagine what a three-dimensional world would be like. It sounds like a very strange world, but it's actually very similar to the world I experience.
Okay, that's an exaggeration - I see much more than just polygons and lines. But it's true that for me, the world is essentially flat.
For my whole life, I've seen the world in just two dimensions. I was born with strabismus (crossed-eyes), and although multiple surgeries were able to set my eyes straight, the impact was only cosmetic. My brain never quite figured out how to take the images from each eye and knit them together to build a three-dimensional world. This means I'm stuck in Flatland.
Of course, there are many ways to infer depth with just one viewpoint. We know if an object overlaps another, that means it's in front. If an object becomes larger, we know it is moving closer to us. Other cues of light, shadow, and atmosphere can all indicate depth; that's how we can watch movies or look at paintings and get a sense of it. But to really see in 3D, to have full "stereo vision," as it's called, you need two eyes. By focusing on the same object from two different viewpoints, the brain is able to infer depth and create a three-dimensional world in a way that it can't do with one eye alone.
What this means for me is that I really don't understand 3D. I'm not sure what people mean when they say that objects in 3D movies appear to "pop out." I just don't get it. This also means that I'm terrible at sports. Over time, I can learn to throw and catch objects, especially ones with regular shapes like basketballs or volleyballs, however, irregular objects confound me. Parking is also a nightmare, since it always appears to me as though I am colliding with the cars in my proximity.
However, this minor disability gave me a major advantage in art. In grade school art class, my classmates would often complain about how difficult it was to take something 3D and translate it to a 2D drawing. I couldn't understand what the big deal was, because to me it was one in the same. Wasn't drawing from life just as hard as drawing from a photo, minus the photo's borders?
Researchers have suggested that being cross-eyed is surprisingly common among artists. Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, and Alexander Calder, to name a few, were all known to have misaligned eyes. There is even some evidence that artists like Rembrandt and Da Vinci were cross-eyed as well. These researchers suggest that having a lazy eye gives the artist an advantage, making it easier for these artists to translate the complex three-dimensional world onto a flat page. It's not surprising, then, that as a child I moved away from playing sports and instead gravitated towards drawing and painting.
But what if there was a way to leave Flatland? A few years ago, I learned about vision therapy that claimed to train people like me to see in 3D. The prospect of this is extremely enticing - to add a whole new dimension to one's vision - and it's something that I've thought about often since first hearing about it. These therapies are still being developed and are not without risk (e.g. for some patients, they have led to permanent and debilitating double vision). I wonder, though, if vision therapy was more accessible and less risky, would I do it? I have spent years honing my artist eye, and I love the way I see the world. On the one hand, I want to explore this new frontier, this new way of seeing. On the other hand, I feel like my current way of seeing still has so much to offer. Given the risks, I am waiting for the therapy to become more established before I make a decision, but ultimately, the promise of adding a new dimension to my vision is too good to resist.
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