Blindspots: The Many Ways We Cannot See
by Bruno Breitmeyer. Oxford University Press, 2010
Do you think what you see is always what you’re looking at? Then think again, says neuroscientist Bruno Breitmeyer. In his book Blindspots, Breitmeyer shows us that there can be large differences between the information that enters our eyes and the pictures that our mind constructs from it.
Blindspots surveys findings from various research fields that deal with vision and visual perception. Interspersed with these facts are fascinating experiments and tricks that illustrate the phenomena described—and that readers can try themselves. The book’s essay style, however, makes it overall a rather dry read.
Breitmeyer spends a good deal of the book discussing in depth the biological underpinnings of how our eyes work and what happens in various diseases and injuries that impair eyesight. Readers learn, for example, that severing specific nerve fibers once left a patient unable to recognize written words. This person’s brain could still take in the shapes of letters but could no longer communicate the information to the brain regions responsible for word recognition, making the patient “word-blind.”
It’s not just illness or injury, however, that can harm our visual perception; experience plays an important part as well, Breitmeyer explains. Studies have shown, for example, that if chimpanzees are not allowed to actively explore their environment when growing up they have a hard time discriminating between similar geometric shapes, such as a triangle oriented upright and one that is upside down. The same will likely happen to neglected infants, Breitmeyer argues, making it difficult for them to distinguish between similar-looking letters, such as t and f.
Our cultural inheritance shapes the way we see, too, Breitmeyer explains. For example, research has shown that those who live in a city or town are particularly well attuned to horizontally and vertically oriented lines because that is mainly what they see in the form of buildings, streets, and so on. That is not the case for those who spend most of their time in an environment dominated by oblique shapes, such as tepee dwellings. And, as everyone knows, strong emotions can make us nearly blind to certain facts. Breitmeyer concludes that “to see in the fullest sense of the word, it is not enough to open your eyes; you also must come with an open mind.”