The Neurological Side-Effects of 3D

[Image: Auguste Choisy].

France is considering a ban on stereoscopic viewing equipment—i.e. 3D films and game environments—for children, due to “the possible [negative] effect of 3D viewing on the developing visual system.”

As a new paper suggests, the use of these representational technologies is “not recommended for chidren under the age of six” and only “in moderation for those under the age of 13.”

There is very little evidence to back up the ban, however. As Martin Banks, a professor of vision science at UC Berkeley, points out in a short piece for New Scientist, “there is no published research, new or old, showing evidence of adverse effects from watching 3D content other than the short-term discomfort that can be experienced by children and adults alike. Despite several years of people viewing 3D content, there are no reports of long-term adverse effects at any age. On that basis alone, it seems rash to recommend these age-related bans and restrictions.”

Nonetheless, he adds, there is be a slight possibility that 3D technologies could have undesirable neuro-physical effects on infants:

The human visual system changes significantly during infancy, particularly the brain circuits that are intimately involved in perceiving the enhanced depth associated with 3D viewing technology. Development of this system slows during early childhood, but it is still changing in subtle ways into adolescence. What’s more, the visual experience an infant or young child receives affects the development of binocular circuits. These observations mean that there should be careful monitoring of how the new technology affects young children.

But not necessarily an outright ban.

In other words, overly early—or quantitatively excessive—exposure to artificially 3-dimensional objects and environments could be limiting the development of retinal strength and neural circuitry in infants. But no one is actually sure.

What’s interesting about this for me—and what simultaneously inspires a skeptical reaction to the supposed risks involved—is that we are already surrounded by immersive and complexly 3-dimensional spatial environments, built landscapes often complicated by radically diverse and confusing focal lengths. We just call it architecture.

Should the experience of disorienting works of architecture be limited for children under a certain age?

[Image: Another great image by Auguste Choisy].

It’s not hard to imagine taking this proposed ban to its logical conclusion, claiming that certain 3-dimensionally challenging works of architectural space should not be experienced by children younger than a certain age.

Taking a cue from roller coasters and other amusement park rides considered unsuitable for people with heart conditions, buildings might come with warning signs: Children under the age of six are not neurologically equipped to experience the following sequence of rooms. Parents are advised to prevent their entry.

It’s fascinating to think that, due to the potential neurological effects of the built environment, whole styles of architecture might have to be reserved for older visitors, like an X-rated film. You’re not old enough yet, the guard says patronizingly, worried that certain aspects of the building will literally blow your mind.

Think of it as a Schedule 1 controlled space.

[Image: From the Circle of Francesco Galli Bibiena, “A Capriccio of an Elaborately Decorated Palace Interior with Figures Banqueting, The Cornices Showing Scenes from Mythology,” courtest of Sotheby’s].

Or maybe this means that architecture could be turned into something like a new training regimen, as if you must graduate up a level before you are able to handle specific architectural combinations, like conflicting lines of perspective, unreal implications of depth, disorienting shadowplay, delayed echoes, anamorphic reflections, and other psychologically destabilizing spatial experiences.

Like some weird coming-of-age ceremony developed by a Baroque secret society overly influenced by science fiction, interested mentors watch every second as you and other trainees react to a specific sequence of architectural spaces, waiting to see which room—which hallway, which courtyard, which architectural detail—makes you crack.

Gifted with a finely honed sense of balance, however, you progress through them all—only to learn at the end that there are four further buildings, structures designed and assembled in complete secrecy, that only fifteen people on earth have ever experienced. Of those fifteen, three suffered attacks of amnesia within a year.

Those buildings’ locations are never divulged and you are never told what to prepare for inside of them—what it is about their rooms that makes them so neurologically complex—but you are advised to study nothing but optical illusions for the next six months.

[Image: One more by Auguste Choisy].

Of course, you’re told, if it ever becomes too much, you can simply look away, forcing yourself to focus on only one detail at a time before opening yourself back up to the surrounding spatial confusion.

After all, as Banks writes in New Scientist, the discomfort caused by one’s first exposure to 3D-viewing technology simply “dissipates when you stop viewing 3D content. Interestingly, the discomfort is known to be greater in adolescents and young adults than in middle-aged and elderly adults.”

So what do you think—could (or should?) certain works of architecture ever be banned for neurologically damaging children under a certain age? Is there any evidence that spatially disorienting children’s rooms or cribs have the same effect as 3D glasses?

12 thoughts on “The Neurological Side-Effects of 3D”

  1. This was a fun read and a nice idea, cheers!

    @ChrisBamborough – he is talking about physical space:

    "It's not hard to imagine taking this proposed ban to its logical conclusion, claiming that certain 3-dimensionally challenging works of architectural space should not be experienced by children younger than a certain age."

  2. Gitmo comes to U.S soil in the form of 'non-violent' neurologically-enhanced interrogation cells holding rooms designed to make you 'name names'… or government buildings, financial institutions, and rooms in skyscrapers designed so that when you look at them you can't see them or they induce paranoia and confusion like in J.G. Ballard's 'The Watchtowers'… entire sections of a city could be rendered off-limits through microscopic light interference patterns, like the ones found on iridescent colored beetles, designed to cause a sort of blindness or disinterest in sections of a city.

  3. "Should the experience of disorienting works of architecture be limited for children under a certain age?"

    I think there's a confusion with your argument which ChrisBamborough has pointed out. The problem introduced by artificial 3D landscapes is with "depth" and "displacement." If the eye perceives an object at a distance of say 100 ft and a height of 50 ft, it will adjust the pitch angles of the eyes to the appropriate angle. This works fine in everyday life and with real-world architecture.

    Now take the same image in the example above and imagine viewing it with VR glasses. Even though the brain may perceive that an object is 100ft away with a vertical displacement of 50 ft, the truth is, the light representing the object is inches away or less, meaning that the pitch angle of the eye will be different than what is natural to the brain. This is what causes nausea, and irritation in some.

  4. I can see their point about side effects. We are already "in" a 3D environment and our eyes are "already" focusing and dealing with the environment around us. We are actually looking and focusing our eyes on a "plane" some distance away (the screens) But with 3d we are making our eyes focus on a spot closer or further away than that plane can cause eye strain (and it does make certain people nauseous and hurts the eyes of some.

    I personally have very good vision. Watching 3d will not only making me nauseous after a short period, it gives me a blinding headache after about 30 minutes.

    I am not so sure it will cause psychological issues . But I would tend to agree that children are dealing with enough when coping with actual reality of space. How can they appreciate how "mind bending" these shapes are if they do not have a grasp on what reality is?

  5. i certainly don't agree with a ban — but there is a case to be made for more fully understanding these technologies' effects on different groups of humans. danah boyd wrote a nice post exploring whether women have a harder time using VR technologies than men, and what that means for their use — . So, with that in mind, maybe we should also ask: how can we better assure equal access to these 3d worlds to broad groups of people? perhaps the same technological fixes that could be made to keep adults (male or female) from becoming queasy might be similarly employed for children (thereby ensuring that we all get a fair shot at solving coming-of-age VR architectural puzzles 🙂 ?

  6. This reminds me so much of The City & the City, especially how children in Besźel (and Ul Qoma) are permitted to Breach, as they can't comprehend the whole "unseeing" concept. Maybe there's there's some age we all reach that allows us to start selectively perceiving portions of a space (either literally or representatively).

    And of course, once you're an adult in Besźel, you must unsee the other, lest you be punished.

  7. the sudden popularity of 3d and the discussion of its potential dangers made me wonder — what if a child was raised in a nonsensical space and was generally only exposed to images and spaces that our brains considered illusionary or abnormal? would they develop in such a way that they were eventually able to imagine and design spaces that we can't conceive of? how would they adjust to the "real world" after an upbringing in spaces that flouted what we see as the rules of reality?

  8. Wow- fascinating discussion- one might check out a 1950's science fiction story by Lewis Padgett entitled "All Mimsy Were the Borogroves" which investigates just such a hypothesis about an early exposure to other kinds of space. As an artist who has been working with what I would call hyper dimensional video (compositing two 3D video images) I have have had similar questions about the effects on my vision and about the potential for another experience of space.

  9. The "problem" (such as it is) with 3D film – as opposed to actual three dimensional architectural spaces – is the focus-convergence dichotomy. In a stereoscopic film your eyes have to focus at the plane of the screen but converge (angle in or out) at the distance of the illusion. There can be a big disparity here, which never happens in real life, where you always focus and converge at the same distance from moment to moment.

  10. Walter, thanks for the comment (and a belated thanks to Gi0rgi0s, as well) and great to see you here.

    Your point (and Gi0rgi0s's) is spot-on, but I would still contend that these same effects (of focus-convergence disparity) can be achieved architecturally. Ornamental anamorphosis could perhaps be one example, where a 3-dimensional image is implied by the upper vaults or arches of a space, causing you to focus on something that is not actually there, thus throwing off your eyes' convergence. A kind of architectural mirage or illusion implied by optically complex ornamentation.

    The same effect could potentially be achieved by placing visual obstacles between you and the actual thing or space you're supposed to be looking at—e.g. a hallway or corridor toward which you're meant to walk, but with a dimensionally complex object (a pillar, a screen, an oddly perforated or confusingly ornamented wall) effectively "tricking" you into focusing on it, instead.

    In any case, the specifics are ultimately less important, I think, than the larger abstract assertion that focus and convergence could, indeed, be thrown-off by sufficiently complex architecture—but your point is otherwise totally correct and it is something I should have discussed more in the above post.

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