A Defect That May Lead to a Masterpiece

In learning to draw or paint, it helps to have a sense of composition, color and originality.

And depth perception? Maybe not so much, neuroscientists are now suggesting. Instead, so-called stereo blindness — in which the eyes are out of alignment so the brain cannot fuse the images from each one — may actually be an asset.

Looking at the world through one eye at a time automatically "flattens the scene," said Margaret S. Livingstone, an expert on vision and the brain at Harvard Medical School who helped carry out a study on stereo vision.

That appears to give people with stereo blindness a natural advantage in translating the richly three-dimensional world onto a flat two-dimensional canvas, she said. They use monocular depth cues like motion, relative size, shadows and overlapping figures to stimulate a 3-D world.

For one experiment in the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers measured stereoscopic ability in 403 students from two art schools known for an emphasis on representational rendering and in 190 non-art majors at a university with similar tuition.

All students donned red and green glasses, the kind used to view 3-D movies, and stared at a background of colored dots that were manipulated by a computer to flicker randomly. Those with stereo vision were able to focus their eyes to see a square floating in front of or behind the computer screen, just as they might see the blade of a sword pop out of a 3-D screen. Those who were stereo blind just saw noise. The artists as a group performed more poorly than the controls.

In a second experiment, the researchers obtained portraits of 121 famous artists and 127 members of Congress from the National Gallery of Art and the photographic archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The subjects’ eyes were cropped from the photos and shown to observers who measured eye alignment using reflected light, not knowing anyone’s identity.

The eyes of the established artists were more often misaligned, Dr. Livingstone said.

Dr. Livingstone and her colleagues first suspected a connection between artistic talent and stereo blindness when they examined 36 self-portraits by Rembrandt and found that his right eye was noticeably deviated in 35 of them. (That finding was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2004.) They wondered how widespread the phenomenon might be.

The idea that some artists have a fundamental visual defect seems counterintuitive, said a co-author of both studies, Bevil R. Conway, a stereo-blind artist who teaches neuroscience at Wellesley College.

"But I always found it easy to draw," he said, "not because of dexterity, but because when I looked at a scene the relative size and spatial relationships of objects seemed obvious and related immediately to their representation on a flat sheet of paper."

An expert not involved in the new research, Susan R. Barry, a professor of neuroscience at Mount Holyoke College, said she thought the authors were "on to something."

Dr. Barry is the author of "Fixing My Gaze" (Basic Books, 2009), an account of how she regained stereo vision at age 50 using vision therapy. "I have received hundreds of e-mails from people who are stereo blind, and it seems a disproportionate number are artists. Not being able to see in stereo might bias some people toward art."

Ten percent of people develop various degrees of stereo blindness in early childhood because of visual defects that do not allow both eyes to line up, Dr. Barry said. Some have weak stereo that comes and goes with fatigue, while others completely lack what she calls the "palpable volumes of space" that come with stereo. Stereo-blind people learn to navigate by using monocular cues and never know what they are missing.

Most artists’ eyes are aligned, of course, so stereo blindness is not a condition for artistic success. And many people with no stereo vision show no artistic talent.

"You can’t make yourself a great artist by poking out one eye," Dr. Conway said.

But if you have normal stereo vision, he continued, you can appreciate the monocular cues used by artists if you sit perfectly still in front of a painting, close one eye and wait.

"Stereo vision, which tells you the canvas is flat, will be suppressed," he said. "The image will pop out at you. It can be quite a surprise."