Stereopsis or 3-D Vision: The Pure Experience


The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Gerard Manley Hopkins

December, first snow, 2009

Who hasn’t said, “You don’t know what you are missing,” when speaking of something she believes another ought to experience– sky-diving, say, or a certain exotic brand of coffee or the pleasures of her favorite restaurant. Because I was unaware for years that I lacked depth perception this was literally true: I did not know what I was missing because I no longer remembered what I had lost. I had in fact no idea there was anything to lose. But with prisms in my glasses, and after months of vision therapy and eye exercises, experiencing 3-D, or stereopsis as it is properly called, was as spectacular as it was elusive of description. Nevertheless, I am nothing if not a writer and so I do my best to put it into words and show you.

Early this morning I went to move my car from the snowed-in parking area and found myself at 5 a.m. alone outside. The street lamps next to the building were on. I could clearly see snow falling against the dark sky as I headed towards the lot. Suddenly there was a nearly audible click in my brain and everything changed. I felt as if I were in a snow globe, inside the snow, separate flakes plummeting around me, each on a different plane, riding a separate moving point in space as it fell.

I looked at a bush with its bare twigs, the ends of which were mounded with snow.  The contrasts in it were heightened, with the boundary between the blackness of twigs and the white snow crisper than I’d ever seen it. Everything was silent. Along with the exquisite clarity and precision of detail, a rush of affection for the universe knocked me breathless.  I stood there smiling. Had I ever seen anything more beautiful than what space had done to this bush with its twigs of snow?  This was not the negative emptiness of which some art critics spoke so passionately, but something positive like an embrace. It is difficult to convey what I mean by this: when we speak of space we usually mean the empty gap between masses, between physical entities or things that matter –after all, isn’t that why we call them matter? But in this instance, I meant space as sculptor of reality, and as artist and sculpture both. Space was the loveliest thing I had ever perceived. It had mass and, by virtue of its own volume, gave substance to the objects surrounding it.

But I could not yet put all this into words. At the time I just smiled, and gazed at the bush and twigs and sidewalk and streetlamp in a kind of dazed wonder.

I went back inside to write at my computer. Just as I sat down and put my hands out — out! how lovely that my hands went out into space, I thought –  the keys on the keyboard drew my eyes to them. My heart ached at the sight of the fraction of an inch between each key and the computer. The space that was their height above the computer took on a numinous quality that would not let me withdraw my gaze. My typing fingers too. Not only that, but the sheer fact that they were above the keys, the space between fingers and keyboard, then the way embodied space gave form and substance to the small squares –indented just slightly to fit the pad of a fingertip – all this made me laugh with tenderness and delight. I was full of bubbles. Why, the entire world was friendly!

I circled my rooms, hypnotized by space, by how space made everything important. How profoundly dishtowels spoke to me, saying, Towel, Towel. The threads stood up, cupped and defined by emptiness, each one loved into being by the artistry of space. Terrycloth folds were utterly different from a fold in paper and yet that folded paper, bent on an angle around a “shapely void,” struck me as infinitely loving. The sculpted space on each side of the fold was so exquisite it brought tears to my eyes. On I went. Doorknobs yearned, reaching out from doors into space. Bookshelves provided a welcoming recess, intimate and implicit with corners, as if saying, Come in, we will protect you. What a delicious concavity each spoon was, a miracle!  My circuit of the room would have been ridiculous, had not everything been so lovely, and so thoroughly devastating.

Mere words hardly serve to describe how I perceived. I felt seized by joy, by delight and yes, by an overwhelming love for all that my eyes alighted on – snow-covered bush, computer keyboard, a friend’s hand extended  in comfort. I know that most people understand the first and last, but few are mesmerized by spoon or towel or indentation of computer key. This troubles me. It is easy to love nature or one’s friends. But I suspect overpowering love for every literal thing is not prosaic. Space sculpts the world, and I was abruptly and unexpectedly given the gift to love all of it. Surely such a gift is available to everyone, yet it seems inaccessible, except largely to those crazed by either drugs or illness. Or to others who have regained, even temporarily, long-lost depth perception. Perhaps because so many have always seen space, they have lost the ability to perceive how beautiful it is and to feel how it embodies.

Later these visions, these perceptions faded along with my new but brief ability to perceive depth at all. But I remember near the end looking into a certain receptacle and being bowled over to see that it had a rounded interior. The sheer “interiority” of it, as well as the fact that it implied roundedness so matter-of-factly that I didn’t have to feel it to know it: why hadn’t I understood before? It struck me as sad and yet the most transcendent discovery of my life. If the world was charged with the grandeur of anything, then that something was the positive, optimistic Shaper of things, their Creator, which we instead call, as if it were nothing, “empty space.”

This is a tragedy and not merely for the individual of normal vision, but for humanity, most of whom will never experience a love for spoons and doorknobs or computer keys or hands above the paper or, by extension, love of every object and every nose and every creature in this world, of every thing and all matter, which is shaped by the Space that loves us. This may be the reason we have done what we have done to the environment, the precious matter in the Creative Space around us.

Because we could not see and therefore could not feel how space is the Creator and loves the matter of the world, we have destroyed it, and ourselves in the process. How could we have done otherwise? We did not know.  We did not see. And we could not feel the truth: that Space is Love and loves the world and makes us, and all matter, beautiful.

2 thoughts on “Stereopsis or 3-D Vision: The Pure Experience”

  1. Excellent questions! In fact, I am taking a life drawing class now that brings all of them to the fore, yet it is difficult still to give you any clear answer. I found the world so exquisitely beautiful with depth perception that I would never give up having had that experience. That said, I am also glad, on that account, that I did not have it before then, because otherwise I would never have known quite how lovely the world really is. However, I found that without constant practice of the exercises, so it seems, my depth perception did not persist. So I am in the position now of occasionally being able to achieve it, with work, but mostly going without. This affords me special moments, like being “inside the snow” but deprives me of true daily 3-D life.

    As for art and 2-D vision, I dunno. I find it very difficult to translate what I see onto the paper or canvas, and find it much much easier to draw or paint from imagination or from a photo, as opposed to from a living person…But I also cannot draw quickly or do so standing up in front of a large piece of paper…I dunno what the problem is exactly, since clearly I can “do a portrait” fine. Still, my “bodies” are all out of proportion and I don’t seem to me to be getting much better as the class proceeds. On the other hand, as the teacher said, the students who often do the best “academically” in the sense that they can draw a perfect life figure in class, sometimes find that they cannot do anything outside of it, cannot think creatively…so I am way ahead of them, whether or not I can achieve a good likeness of a life model in class. As for translating 3-d to 2-D, yes I thought it would help NOT to see 3-D but in fact, it is difficult. For me, I often lose the details, because without depth perception you cannot know that there are actual things you do not detect, because to you they are merely shadings not “objects” — for instance, a bush at night to me looks like a blob of superficial blacks and grays rather than a dark object/bush with deeper darker depths to it.
    I am going on and on about this, but perhaps I am saying something that makes sense? Try painting a still life of things made up of only whites and grays and blacks and you will see the difficulty. It is very hard to distinguish where one thing starts and ends…and frankly I found this interfered with my painting rather than helped it. However, if you can truly ONLY paint what you see and not what you know, then perhaps it would not hinder but help you after all!

    Thanks again for your insightful comment



  2. Have you been able to gain stereopsis/3D vision back again? I am considering vision therapy. But in a way I like how I see now. It feels a part of me, and I don’t want to lose it. I don’t know if there is a “right” way to see. I worry because I enjoy art and have heard that people who see in 2D have an easier time translating what they see to a 2D canvas. We pick up on other cues like linear perspective and superimposed objects. If I were to create a painting now with my non-3D vision, would I still be able to paint the same way after gaining stereopsis? What do you think about all this based on your experiences?


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