Seeing Depth in the Brain – Part I


By Andrew Parker, Oxford University

The Physiological Society set up the annual, travelling GL Brown Prize Lecture to stimulate an interest in the experimental aspects of physiology. With predecessors such as Colin Blakemore and Semir Zeki, following in their footsteps is a tall order. They are not only at the very top scientifically but also superb communicators.

My lecture series on stereo vision has already taken me around the UK, including London, Cardiff, and Sheffield. I’ll be at the University of Edinburgh on 15 November and Oxford University on 23 November. It’s a nice touch that GL Brown’s career took him around the country too, including Cambridge, Manchester, Mill Hill and central London, before he became Waynflete Professor in my own department in Oxford. The other pleasurable coincidence of giving lectures on stereo vision this year is that there is a 50th anniversary since fundamental discoveries were made about how the brain combines the information from the two eyes to provide us with a sense of depth.

In his 1997 book How the Mind Works Steven Pinker wrote, “Stereo vision is one of the glories of nature and a paradigm of how other parts of the mind might work.” I can’t claim to have written this inspiring sentence myself, but I can at least claim to have chosen stereo vision as my field well before Steven Pinker wrote his sentence.

Stereo vision is, in a nutshell, three-dimensional visual perception. It is the use of two eyes in coordination to give us a sense of depth: a pattern of 3-D relief or 3-D form that emerges out of 2-D images arriving at the left and right eyes. These images are captured by the light-sensitive surface of the eye called the retina. Stereo vision gives us the ability to derive information about how far away objects are, based solely on the relative positions of the object in the two eyes.

Victorian stereograph

Figure 1: “The stereograph as an educator,” illustrating the virtual reality technology of the Victorian era.

The Victorians amused themselves with stereo vision (see Figure 1). Virtual reality is our modern day version of this, but what comes next? The next generation will probably enjoy “augmented reality” rather than virtual reality. With augmented reality, extra computer-generated imagery is projected onto objects in the real world. The aim is to create a perceptual fusion of real objects with virtual imagery. For example, in one prototype I have seen, surgeons perform their operations with virtual imagery (acquired with diagnostic imaging devices) superimposed upon the surgical field in the operating theatre. Needless to say, this places much higher demands on the quality and stability of the virtual imaging systems.

What causes people like Pinker, who are outside the field, to get so excited about stereo vision? Partly it’s just the experience itself. If you’ve been to the 3-D movies or put on a virtual reality headset, you will have the sense of stereoscopic depth. It is vivid and immediate. The other thing that excites Pinker is the way in which the brain is able to create a sense of a third dimension in space out of what are fundamentally two flat images. As a scientific problem, this is fascinating.

We also see parallels between stereo vision and how other important functions of the brain are realised. One straightforward example of that is visual memory. Gaining a sense of stereoscopic depth from two images (left and right) requires matching of visual features from one image to another. Remembering whether or not we have seen something before requires matching of a present image to a memory trace of a previously seen image. Both processes require the nervous system to match visual information from one source to another.

Another aspect that Pinker is highlighting is the way in which the two flat images in stereo are fused to form with a new perceptual quality, binocular depth. A great deal of spatial perception works this way. One obvious example is our ability to use the two ears in combination to form an impression of sound localised in space, based just on the vibrations received by the left and right ear canals.

What is the world like without stereo vision? While you can partly experience this by placing an eyepatch over one eye (try playing a racket sport or carefully making a cup of tea), the difference is most strongly highlighted by the very rare cases when stereo vision appears to have been lost but is then recovered. Susan Barry, professor of neurobiology at Mount Holyoke College, was stereoblind in early life but eventually gained stereo vision with optometric vision therapy.

In a New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks (Stereo Sue, A Neurologist’s Notebook, June 19 2006) Barry describes her newly acquired perception of the world. “Every leaf seemed to stand out in its own little 3-D space. The leaves didn’t just overlap with each other as I used to see them. I could see the SPACE between the leaves. The same is true for twigs on tree, pebbles on the road, stones in a stone wall. Everything has more texture.”

Check back next Wednesday for Part II of Andrew Parker’s blog on stereo vision.

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