Beyond Illusion: “Carpentered Corners,” Basic Cognitive Functions, and the Architectural Surround

In 1966, a seminal study by Marshall Segal and colleagues at Syracuse University found substantial variation in the susceptibility to standard optical illusions across cultures. The Muller-Lyer illusion—two identical lines with different arrowheads, one normal and the other inverted (insert picture)—was shown to trick Western subjects into thinking that one line was longer than the other. Non-Western subjects, however, asserted correctly that the lines were identical in length. The authors surmised that, for Westerners, exposure to the “carpentered corners” of modern environments during critical stages of cognitive development creates visual habits and optical calibrations that are then carried over into adulthood. Such “carpentered corners” are nonexistent in primitive environments prior to the advent of measured and planned architecture.

Segal’s study raises important questions about the relationship between a human being’s basic cognitive functions—functions often thought to be universally hardwired and impermeable to environmental influence—and the constructed environment. Is the modern Western environment with its uniform and sterile architecture more sensory depriving compared to non-Western, primitive environments? And have the perceptual faculties of the modern human being atrophied as a result of this deprivation? What other taken-for-granted cognitive functions might turn out, upon further investigation, to be mere illusions masking felt reality?

The Insufficiently Procedural Bioscleave Hypothesis held by Arakawa and Gins states that the biosphere, as it currently stands, is inadequate for apprehending the complexities of human agency. To combat this inadequacy, Arakawa and Gins propose an augmented reality enhanced by carefully defined architectural procedures—sequences of action for moving the body through a tactically posed surround. Taking the findings of Segal and his colleagues one step further, how might the restructuring of our current environment change our susceptibility to common perceptual illusions? And how might we, as human beings, be so restructured as a result?

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