The cynical amongst us have railed against 3D movies as little more than a gimmick to increase the bottom line for movie studios, who charge a premium price for the privilege of seeing their features pop off the screen. Neuroscientist Bruce Bridgeman, however, might disagree.
Bridgeman, who’s spent his life “stereo blind” – meaning he couldn’t perceive depth when looking at things around him – had a life-changing experience when he went to see Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo. As the film started and he donned his 3D glasses, Bridgeman noticed that characters and objects were leaping off the screen. Something in the film’s 3D presentation clicked and his stereoblindness was, for the lack of a better word, cured. Best of all? The effect lasted even after he left the theater and he’s still seeing the world with depth today.
In a letter to Dr. Oliver Sacks, Bridgeman describes the aftermath of the viewing. “I was astonished to see a lamppost standing out from the background. Trees, cars, even people were in relief more vivid than I had ever experienced.”
Scientists aren’t sure what caused the change in Bridgeman’s vision, but the current thinking is that he always had the ability to see in 3D, but that the movie somehow made it active. We see things with depth because the eyes regularly see two slightly different images when we look at things. The brain then takes those images and merges them and we wind up with our depth perception. This is why people who only see out of one eye have such difficulty with their own perception of depth – there’s only one source of input for the brain to deal with.
A BBC article on the subject delves deeper into why Hugo may have caused this breakthrough for Bridgeman, saying that 3D films use a full spectrum of visual cues to engage an audience. This is not unlike regular therapy to treat stereo blindness, except that a movie like Hugo provides two hours of therapy while keeping the patient constantly engaged. Traditional therapy exercises are repetitive and can become boring quickly.
Science will undoubtedly continue to look into the hows and whys of what happened with Mr. Bridgeman, and perhaps they’ll uncover a new method for helping stereoblind people see the world in the way the rest of us do. In the meantime, the 5-10% of the population living with this issue might want to check out Hugo. Even if it doesn’t help with the vision problems, you’ll still have seen one of last year’s most magical films.