(previously published November 2013)
Optical illusions fascinate us with the tricks they play on our visual system. Combinations of angles, contrasts, and geometrical shapes have the power to confuse our brain into thinking that stationary objects are moving and that flat images have 3-D qualities. The information received through our eyes competes with the data we have stored in our brains in an attempt to make “sense” of what we are viewing. The past struggles with the present in order to assimilate the information that we are seeing and square it with what we have previously seen. When the brain has difficulty matching what it knows to be true (or has learned from experience to be true) with what we are looking at, it tends to take on a leadership role in transforming the scene into what it “should be.” Hence, static and straight lines become moving, curved ones. Susana Martinez-Conde, Director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, AZ, defines visual illusions as “the dissociation between physical reality and subjective perception of an object or event.” It appears that when we view an optical illusion, we are experiencing “the ways in which the brain can fail to recreate the physical world.”
The brain’s re-creation of the physical world begins the day we are born – the first time we set our eyes upon a physical object. Our first sighting may be blurry and limited to a face, but the information that we obtain from it becomes part of our visual memory. As newborns, however, we suffer from too many disorganized visual cortex connections, “which must be carefully pruned, based upon visual experience, into crisply defined columns.” Less is more in the case of our development of fine detail and shape and pattern recognition skills. Vision skillsranging from color and form perception, to face and object recognition, and to motion and spatial awareness are strongly influenced by “expectations based on past experience.” Vision is the dominant sense in the acquisition of approximately 75-80% of what we learn and is a powerful force for how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. It is this very power, however, that can lead the brain to incorrectly “see and respond to the visual world,” as it is drawn into misperceptions while it attempts to match what it knows with what it sees. While visual perception plays a key role in the misperception of an optical image – resulting in an optical illusion, it also maintains a significant place in the mastery of handwriting skills. “From the detection of light and dark in the retina, to the abstraction of lines and edges…to the interpretation of objects and their spatial relationships in higher visual areas, each task in visual perception illustrates the efficiency and strength of the human visual system,” and its vital link to handwriting mastery.
In order to appreciate the mystery of optical illusions and their visual perceptual link to handwriting skills, we must begin with the one fundamental necessity for efficient handwriting – automaticity. Virginia Berninger, in her paper “The ‘Write Stuff’ for Preventing and Treating Disabilities,” identifies handwriting automaticity as “a strong predictor of the quality of composition in normally developing and disabled writers.” Automaticity, in this context, is defined as the ability to correctly produce letters without having to consciously think about them. When a writer can do this quickly, “memory space is freed up for higher level composing processes, such as what to write about, what to say and how to say it.” Automaticity does not develop automatically, however. It is heavily dependent upon guided handwriting instruction and practice. As a student delves into the world of shapes, letters, and words, he begins to develop the visual perceptual skills that he will need for automatic writing. The lines, angles, and curves that form letters begin to transform into communication tools in his long-term memory, ready for retrieval and storage into his short-term visual memory for use in writing quickly, legibly, and creatively. The writing process from start to finish – from scribbling as a toddler to fluent handwriting skills – is a complex one that involves a myriad of strengths. Physical, cognitive, and visual skills lay the foundation for automaticity…and the ability to see into the future.
Dr. Mark Changizi, in his book, The Vision Revolution, compares our ability to think about the future with our ability to see the future. Thinking about what will or might happen tomorrow is reflective of words and sentences coursing through our thoughts. Sometimes we get it right and other times quite wrong. Dr. Changizi states that, “visual perception is just a special variety of mental processes, one that leads to seeing rather than sentences running through your mind.” He describes the visual system as one that creates “a perception that represents the way the world should look in the future” and that we must concede that it sometimes will get it wrong. Optical illusions are an example of a misperception resulting from our brain trying to predict the future. But he cautions us against worrying that these misperceptions are the result of faulty brain-vision designs. Instead, he presents his theory that they are “useful fictions” and actually have a purpose in guiding our behavior as we interact with our world (as in the case of “filling in the blanks” when we can only see a portion of a familiar object). Misperceptions occur when the object or event that we are perceiving “does not compute” with our experience of how that object should look or how the event should play out. The brain steps in to make it right by rearranging the facts a bit, encouraging a match with a memory byte it has stored from the past. This makes for great fun with optical illusions; but in the case of handwriting automaticity, “useful fictions” serve a more important function as they guide a writer’s behaviors by “filling in the blanks” for letters and words.
As we are composing or copying written material, we can’t wait around for the brain to figure out what is wrong and to make adjustments. When a writer begins to form the letter “H” starting with the first vertical line, he must already KNOW that the next two lines are another vertical and a horizontal link. As he writes, the information he produces matches his perception of the letter in his stored memory and he can quickly move on to the next letter. In reverse, if he sees a vertical line with a short horizontal line extending from the middle right side of it, he will quickly form the letter “H” in his mind’s eye, allowing him to read or reproduce it. No matter the font, an “H” is an “H” according to his visual perception!
In all cases, he is seeing into the future.
Our visual perceptual skills are in a constant state of motion. Neuroscientist Mo Costandi stresses that we do not see the world as it actually is. Instead, he contends that “our perception of the world is the brain’s best guess at what is actually happening based upon the information it receives through the senses.” Movement is a key component in learning as it engages the senses, particularly our vision. As we learn through the experience of our bodies’ movement – from our trunks to our fingers – while they travel through space, we begin to understand how our bodies work and how they interact with the other objects in our environment. This is vital to our development of directional concepts and spatial awareness. These are not only critical skills for navigating physically through our lives, but they form the foundation for handwriting mastery. Movement continues to play a significant role in our perception of the world as we use the skills we have learned. Dr. Changizi stresses that we cannot “simply sit back and wait for the world to tell us what’s happening.” Life, indeed, would be passing us by, both figuratively and literally. Our visual perceptual skills need to be focused and engaged as we anticipate “the next moment and build a completed perception of it by the time it arrives,” moving with the moment – or at least a tenth of a second behind it. (I suggest you turn to page 134 in Dr. Changizi’s book for this!) Handwriting mastery – not simply the learning of handwriting – begins when a writer can anticipate the next movement of his hand in the production of letters before he is required to perform it. Letter recognition, automaticity, and creativity demand that we remain one step ahead of our visual perception, staying clear of misperceptions.
Unlike optical misperceptions, there is no illusion to handwriting mastery – it’s all very visible, indeed.
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
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