Thursday, September 10, 2020

A World Without Vertical

Back in the late 1970's a psychologist by the name of Colin Blakemore conducted experiments in which he raised cats in an environment composed solely of horizontal stripes. The result was that as adult cats they could not see vertical stripes. The cells in their brains that would have under normal circumstances fired when presented with things like table legs and standing lamps did not fire, which meant that this part of the world was invisible to them, even as they would bump into them as they explored. Their brains had not received the stimulation, they had not had the practice, and were therefore unable to see vertical features.

As bizarre and unhappy as that sounds, a similar phenomenon has been noted in humans who have been cured of blindness: it takes time for them to learn to see faces and other shapes. This is because brains don't just passively record our world. They actively construct it based on the raw input from our senses. It makes one wonder what we are missing because we are incapable or unpracticed in the art of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling. Our ancient ancestors did not see the color blue. We've all experienced developing an "acquired taste" for something that initially made us gag. The same goes for music, from Igor Stravinsky whose The Rite of Spring initially caused audiences to riot to the seminal Seattle grunge band Nirvana whose Smells Like Teen Spirit once sounded to a lot of us like "just a bunch of noise." Now we can hear both as background music while shopping at Nordstrom because we have constructed how to hear them.

From the moment we are born, our brains go to work constructing the world around us, making sense of what we perceive via our senses. Even such manifestly obvious things like vertical stripes must be actively constructed, yet, generally speaking, our schools are built around a decidedly passive approach to learning, with children in the role of recording devices who will be judged according to how accurately they can play it back upon demand.

I wonder how many children have seen colors beyond blue only to be told they are wrong. I wonder how many flavors or sounds or textures or scents we're missing out on because adults have decided they must construct learning for children rather than allowing them to do it for themselves. I wonder if all these invisible table legs and standing lamps into which we keep bumping would become clear to us if we could just get out of the way and let our children, as they are meant to, construct the world for themselves.


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