Same As It Ever Was…

by Ann Bartkowski

So last week Marcus and Antoine did this sweet study group focused on the exhibit Hoop Nightmares.  For anyone who doesn’t know, this exhibit allows you to try and shoot baskets with and without these glasses that make things in front of you look like they are over to the side.  After shooting several baskets with the glasses, it’s harder to aim with normal vision, since your brain has gotten used to the basket seeming to be elsewhere.  (Incidentally, Richard Brown just sent out an email today about how this exhibit is now part of an exhibition somewhere in SF about drugs, as it allows people to experience temporary memory loss.)

So anyway, for their study group Marcus and Twan  made us our own prism goggles and facilitated a relay race game involving walking/running to and from a bucket and getting a basketball into it.  It was disorienting and even a bit scary to attempt to move our bodies through space when our brains couldn’t quite interpret what we were seeing, but overall it was just completely hilarious (especially when you had normal vision and were watching someone else stumble around).      

After a few rounds of the game, we sat down for a discussion and someone mentioned this study done about goggles that invert your vision.  For some reason, I became super interested by this idea awhile ago, so I did a bit of research on it then and figured I would share with you what I found. 

It seems the first published research on this was done by Stratton at the very end of the 19th Century.  He made goggles that rotated the wearer’s vision 180 degrees, so everything was upside down.  In 1897, he published “Vision without inversion of the retinal image” in the journal Psychological Review.  In this paper, he alleged that after wearing the goggles for awhile, the participants brains had flipped the image so they perceived it as right side up even with the goggles still on.  Which would be awesome…if the experiment could be replicated consistently with the same results, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. 

 The most recent study I could find on this was published in the journal Perception in 1999. Entitled, “The myth of upright vision. A psychophysical and functional imaging study of adaptation to inverting spectacles”, this study is accessible online here and it explains everything way better than I could ever attempt to summarize, so here are some fascinating (in my opinion) excerpts from the discussion and conclusion:

“All subjects showed a rapid adaptation of motor skills. On the third day of the experiment, they were capable of walking freely without a stick. Subjects performed all tasks of everyday life with none or minimal aid. During the second half of the experiment, they were able to find their way in a crowded department store and to ride a bicycle. The execution of very fine movements, however, was slowed down and remained so until the end of the experiment.”

“The subjects reported that at times they had the impression that they themselves, rather than the world around them, had been turned upside down, but that they knew that this was not the case. But no subject claimed that he had regained upright vision or that his visual image matched his body sense at any point during the experiment, not even when the subjects were exploring the visual scene by touch”  

“Our four subjects showed a visuomotor adaptation to prism- and mirror-inverted vision that was similar to that reported in previous studies (Kottenhoff 1961). Yet the results of the perceptual tasks and the subjects’ reports about their experience suggest that this visuomotor adaptation did not rely on a return of upright vision. Their rapid behavioural adaptation to the new spatial structure of the visual image might have to be explained by the learning of new motor patterns and increased skill at spatial transformations (Held and Freedman 1963) rather than an adjustment of the perception of the world, seen through the mirror or prism, to the conventional orientation. The fact that none of our subjects reported upright vision during the experiment is in keeping with parts of the previous literature. Of the five classical experiments with inverting spectacles, only two (Stratton 1897; Snyder and Pronko 1952) resulted in reports of upright vision of some sort. In the three other cases, visuomotor adaptation occurred without major changes of perception (Ewert 1928, reported in Kottenhoff 1961). The five subjects who wore upside-down inverting mirrors at Innsbruck University for periods of five days to two weeks during the years 1947 ^ 1954 all showed rapid and partly spectacular motor adaptation, including the ability to ride a bicycle or to go skiing. Around day 3 of the experiment they reported an increasing ambiguity of the visual image. Sometimes they would see an object upside down, sometimes in its conventional orientation, depending on the context and the extent to which the violation of gravity was felt to interfere with the visual image. These effects can be described as an interpretation of the visual image guided by previous knowledge about the external world and information about one’s own position in it rather than fully fledged upright vision (Kottenhoff 1961). Even Stratton himself, who otherwise gave the least ambiguous account of perceptual changes, conceded the importance of the appropriate “mental attitude of the observer toward the present scene” (Stratton 1896). It is also worth considering that none of the previous investigators tested their subjects’ claim to upright vision with context- independent tasks, such as the reading and shape-from-shading task used in our study.”


 I couldn’t figure out how to access Stratton’s “Vision without inversion of the retinal image” paper online, but I did find its predecessor, “Some preliminary experiments on vision without inversion of the retinal image”.  And although this study may be flawed and not draw the best conclusions, I think it’s really interesting to read especially to learn about how Stratton built inverting goggles and how he felt when he wore them himself. 

Also, on a related note here’s a ridiculously phenomenal video I found called Living in a Reversed World made apparently quite a while ago by Institute of Experimental Psychology University in Austria.  It doesn’t involve inverted vision, but instead reverses vision between the left and right.  I always lose it and crack up around 5:30 minutes into the video  I also really enjoy the nonchalance of the professor in the video… Oh, you just dropped a glass on the floor and it shattered on my foot.  No matter, just ignore it and draw on this chalkboard so we can continue doing this science experiment….

So anyway, this is just my very limited current understanding of vision inverting and prism stuff.  If you know more please add it!  Sorry- I didn’t originally intend to write an intensely long post …thanks for reading it if you actually did!