Our Eyes Are Untrustworthy

CARL J. WARDEN May 15 1932

Our Eyes Are Untrustworthy

CARL J. WARDEN May 15 1932

Our Eyes Are Untrustworthy

A Knowledge of Humanity’s Visual Habits Can Be Utilized in Many Important Ways


CAN you trust your own eyes? An article by Carl J. Warden, Ph.D., in The American Magazine informs us that we cannot, and that by making use of this knowledge we can do a great deal toward making things appear as we wish them to appear. The author states:

“Psychologists have learned much about how our eyes behave normally, and this information is being put to use in many ways. For example, the eye movements of a reader in scanning the printed page have been studied by means of motion pictures, and this knowledge has been applied to the mechanics of advertising, art, and illustration. Artists know that when we look at a picture, instinctively we look at the lower left-hand corner first. From there our eyes move to the upper right-hand comer. Then we back-track and finally take in the whole picture by a series of loops. Since it is much harder for us to look at anything from right to left, the journey back requires some effort.

“Glance casually at any illustration in this magazine. Isn’t it a fact that whatever object happens to be in the lower left-hand comer is the first thing you see?

“This normal habit of vision may be applied in fields other than art. Suppose you have a room where the door opens almost in the centre. If you want your guests to see a new chair or piece of bric-àbrac that you are especially proud of, the surest way to attract their notice is to place it on their left as they enter. But if there is a worn place in the mg, which you want to conceal, put that on the right side.

“It has been claimed that our eyes have formed this left-to-right habit as the result ! of reading, because type reads from left to right. But that is putting the cart before the horse. The truth is, our words are printed that way to make them easier for us to read. Chinese and Japanese printed characters read from top to bottom in lines which run from right to left. This is because Mongolians write with a small brush held in the right hand and are taught to begin forming letters on the right side of the page. But normally theÿ have the same left-toright and lower-to-upper-comer habit of sight as a Caucasian.

“Window dressing, which has recently become a fine art in some stores, makes use of this habit. Large department stores, for example, have found that items of merchandise displayed in the left side of a window and fairly low will attract many more shoppers than if they are displayed with equal prominence in the right-hand side. This, of course, applies only to a casual glance. A confirmed window shopper reads the window just as he or she looks at a picture.

“This left-to-right habit asserts itself in many ways. The right-hand rules of the road in America are based on it. When we enter a church or a store our first impulse is to turn to the right. If you shared a store with a partner and you took the left side and he the right, you would find that his sales and his crowds would exceed yours unless you provided some stimulus, such as a bargain, to overcome it. Merchants consider this fact in arranging their goods in the store.

“The habit is probably associated with right-liandedness in man. It is thus a very old racial matter, for even the cave man was right-handed, anthropologists tell us.

"Another interesting eye habit has to do with what artists call ‘the golden mean’— that is. a picture or an object is more attractive to us if its proportions are unevenly balanced. For instance, a painting is more pleasing if its centre of interest is placed above or below rather than at the centre of the canvas. Roughly, the best division is in the proportion of three to five.

“Similarly, in household objects such as

vases or furniture wre instinctively feel that the shajxî of one thing is graceful while another is ugly. A Grecian urn, for example, appears more beautiful than an old stone pitcher. The reason is that one conforms to the golden mean and the other violates it.

“The first automobiles were short, stubbylooking affairs compared with the long, graceful, streamlined cars we see today. Again the golden mean comes in. Automobile designers strive to exaggerate the length and sweeping curves of the hood, in order to balance it with the longer and bulkier requirements of the body, so as to preserve as far as possible the proportions which your eyes instinctively demand.

“One interesting optical illusion common to us all is produced by the so-called ‘blind spot’ in our eyes. At this spot in the retina we can see nothing. Suppose you were an eyewitness to an automobile accident in which three cars were involved, and standing across the street was another person, also an eyewitness. It is conceivable that at the moment of the accident one of the cars might be passing the blind sjxrt in your vision and that the same might be true of the man across the street. In that event both of you could testify truthfully that you saw but two cars, when a photograph taken at the same instant would show three. The eye of a camera has no blind spot.

“That birds and animals have optical illusions similar to those of human beings is indicated by recent psychological experiments in the Animal Laboratory of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.

“Some optical illusions have a valuable personal application. For example, the man and woman whom Nature has endowed with excess fat will not help things any if they persist in wearing dinky little hats perched atop their heads or garments adorned with broad, prominent plaids. Such people should wear large hats and plain, loosely fitting clothes to establish a sort of symmetry which, like camouflage, helps to fool the eye. A man with a long neck should never wear a high collar.

“Long sleeves on women’s dresses make short, stubby hands look longer. They also exaggerate the thinness of long, skinny hands. Long vamp shoes make a stubby foot look longer. Short vamps make a long foot look shorter. Long diagonal lines in clothes make you look more slender. A short, fat man should never wear a doublebreasted plaid suit unless he enjoys looking short and fat. A double row of buttons on a military uniform, if it widens out at the top, instantly creates the illusion of broader shoulders and narrower hips than actually exist.

“Probably the optical illusions most generally produced relate to the use of make-up. By the use of color the girl with a fat, round face creates an illusion of slenderness. The girl with facial angles and prominent cheek bones softens their effect by a skilful application of rouge.

“The use of illusion works with telling effect in home decoration. A high, narrow room instantly responds with a more graceful contour when French panels are placed in the side walls and when the eye is taken away from the impression of height by some brilliantly colored focal point of interest, such as a vase of flowers or a gaily colored picture.

“Advertising men have long understood the principles by which the eyes react. For example, they know that to capture your interest, either by a printed statement or a picture, they must endeavor to arrest your attention at the left side of the page, where you will look first. If you find nothing of interest there, you may quickly turn the page, and the effect of an advertisement will be lost.”