Interpreting What We See

Distance Impacts our Perceptions

Interpreting What We See

Prof. Hans-Peter Plag, PhD
Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute
Old Dominion University Norfolk, Va.

Our Perception of an object changes depending on how far or close we are and on how accustomed we are with it. During a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Florida, I spent several hours at the Dali Museum there. For some of Salvador Dali’s paintings, the distance to the painting determines what we see. Approaching the painting, “Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire” ( from the distance, Voltaire’s bust is the most obvious feature in the center of the painting. The choice of using Voltaire’s bust in the painting is notable: Voltaire was a dedicated and outspoken advocate of civil liberties, not afraid of putting himself at risk by arguing for the freedom of thoughts under the strict censorship of his time. He also showed a great respect for science and the work of Sir Isaac Newton. Moving closer to the painting, the bust of Voltaire slowly disappears, and with it, what Voltaire stands for, giving way to two nuns within the slave market, emphasizing the cruelty of the slave market.

Amazingly, our brain is able to interpret complex visual stimuli extremely fast and the meaning of a scene like the one in Dali’s painting is interpreted in fractions of a second. However, the visual stimulus of this particular painting is open to interpretation. Recent research using ltered versions of this painting showed that participants overwhelmingly saw the bust of Voltaire when the ner details of the painting were obscured, and saw the nuns when large-scale features were obscured.1

These findings underlined the importance of scale information in perception. Large-scale features that change little over a given distance are more visible with low spatial resolution, while small-scale features that change much more over the same distance require much higher spatial resolution to be recognized. In a second experiment in the same study, the participants in two groups were shown random-noise patterns before they saw a grey- scale version of Dali’s painting. The group that was shown a random pattern with a high spatial resolution reported seeing the bust of Voltaire, and the group that saw patterns with low spatial resolution reported seeing the nuns. This showed that previous experience is an important factor in perception, and adapting vision to the spatial scale in the random pattern led the participants to selectively perceive the opposite spatial scale in the grey-scale painting.

“A generic problem in vision is to know which information drives the perception of a stimulus.”1 This generic problem can be extended to knowing which information drives the perception of a specific situation, a problem or a threat. Many of the problems and threats we face as individuals, groups, communities, and as a global species are open to interpretation. Here, too, the distance that we have determines what we see.

In the same way as the perception of Dali’s painting changes with our distance to the painting, looking at the planet from different distances and at different spatial and temporal resolutions changes the perception. Looking from space, we see the beauty of the Earth as a dynamic planetary life-support system, but getting closer we discover the cruelties of humanity on its path of exploiting the wealth of the planetary system for the benefit of a few.

Editor’s Note:

Due to copyright laws, we cannot publish the Salvador Dali paintings referenced in the article. Please visit them here:

Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire:

The Broken Bridge and the Dream:

Twenty- five years ago, 1,700 independent scientists sent a warning to humanity pointing out that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course” and that if environmental damage was not stopped, our future was at risk.2 On the twenty-fifth anniversary of this call, William J. Ripple et al. look back at this warning. Evaluating the human response to the dire warning by exploring available time-series data, they found alarming trends, including increasing dead zones, deforestation, CO2 emissions, temperature, and population growth; and decreasing invertebrate species, and freshwater resources. This led them to formulate a second warning,3 this time supported by 15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries, which was published on November 13, 2017: “Humanity is now being given a second notice, as illustrated by these alarming trends. We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.”

In the same way as the perception of Dali’s painting changes with our distance to the painting, looking at the planet from different distances and at different spatial and temporal resolutions changes the perception. Looking from space, we see the beauty of the Earth as a dynamic planetary life-support system, but getting closer we discover the cruelties of humanity on its path of exploiting the wealth of the planetary system for the bene t of a few.

The 1992 warning had little immediate impact on the perception of most of us to the threat humanity poses to the Earth’s life-support system and to our own future. In 2015, there were signs that the international community was realizing the threat in global trends and the urgency of building a basis for a significant change in the trajectory of the Earth’s life-support system on which all human and non-human animals depend. For example, the United Nations agreed on seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the world came together in Paris to agree on actions to mitigate climate change.

But the principle perception of the state of humanity and the role we play as part of Earth’s life-support system is not changing. We don’t see the “slave market” that our current global society has created with an economy that is high consumption-based. Enslaved by an economy designed to serve the hoarding of unlimited wealth by a few, our vision is focused on the small-scale needs for in nite growth of production and consumption and we are largely incapable of perceiving the large-scale threats of degrading our life-support system and crossing thresholds that will forever change the ability of this system to sustain our lives.

Many scientists, who are trying to describe the threats we are facing and identify their origin, are like a physician dealing with an undiagnosed patient exhibiting many symptoms but with no speci c sickness diagnosed, as I’ve previously referenced in this column. At the recent Future in Review (FiRe) conference held in Park City, Utah, diagnosing the undiagnosed was one of the focus topics. Tens of millions are undiagnosed patients in the U.S., and one reason for that is that diagnosis is still not based on data. Examples showed that using large amounts of data and arti cial intelligence, the undiagnosed could be diagnosed.

Listening to those discussing the cases of undiagnosed patients, I realized that one “undiagnosed patient” is the Earth, suffering from a large number of increasingly severe symptoms. Looking at the rapidly degrading planet, I think of a father watching his undiagnosed child slowly die. Many of us scientists look at specific symptoms (such as climate change, extinction, pollution, land use) in isolation without fully accounting for the systemic connections between all of these symptoms. As a result, the very extensive Earth observation and research efforts have not resulted in an agreed-upon diagnosis of the deep cause of the rapid degradation all data is clearly showing, no matter whether looking at high spatial and temporal resolution or aggregated in space and time.

We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.

I asked myself whether an approach similar to the one used to diagnose the undiagnosed human patients could actually diagnose patient Earth. Integrating all available data on the planetary system and humanity and using artificial intelligence on this really big data might help us to identify the cause, the sickness. The need for datasets integrated across all domains has been emphasized particularly in the discussion of implementing the SDGs, and organizations like the World Bank, the Global Partnership of Sustainable Development Data and the Group on Earth Observations are making efforts towards data integration.

There is a proliferation of collaborative platforms for the integrations of geospatial, environmental and statistical data, and combining the integrated datasets with algorithms based on artificial intelligence may soon allow us to reach a diagnosis. And if so, what would be a likely candidate for the ìsicknessî we would diagnose?

The sole purpose of todayís economy is to generate unlimited human wealth, and this purpose was defined 250 years ago in the white-male dominated European countries. From there, this parasitic approach to our interactions with the Earthís life-support system spread across the world as part of the white maleís imperialistic enterprise and contaminated almost all societies in a very short time. Thus, diagnosing the Earth might point towards what I like to call the “white male syndrome,” which has transformed humanity from a species much like other animals into a potentially terminal virus in the Earth’s life-support system.

We are too close to, and too much inside the planetary system and therefore don’t see the “disappearing bust” of Earth’s life-support system. The many micro-organisms that live in our bodies are incapable of perceiving the macro human body, but both the micro-organisms and the macro organism are mutually interdependent and cannot exist without each other. Can art help us to change our perception and put us at the right distance to truly see the Earth’s life-support system and the peril our current way of being in this system and interacting with it is causing?

Walking through the museum and seeing the amazing collection of Dali’s work conquering irrationality, there was another Dali painting that caught my special attention: “The Broken Bridge and the Dream” ( In a dream, crossing a bridge signifies a critical junction in life and an important transition to new conditions. Envisioning a broken bridge that is uncrossable makes the transition impossible and the bridge needs to be xed before we can move on. Seeing Dali’s broken bridge made me think of the bridge humanity needs to cross: the bridge that leads us from exploiting the planet for the short-term bene ts of a few to being the planetary caretakers safeguarding the Earth’s life-support system for all human and non-human animals. But this bridge appears more and more to be a broken bridge. We actually are running with increasing speed toward the end of the broken bridge, and this end appears to be hidden in fog.

Some of us are dreaming of terraforming Mars – turning it into an Earth-like planet. We don’t want to acknowledge that we are operating Earth’s planetary system and determining its future. Making mistakes has global consequences, and the data we have are documenting many of the mistakes we have made and the consequences are occurring now. We have started to call our time the Anthropocene, the epoch of our making, but we are not acting accordingly.

We are using more than 50% of the ice-free land surface, and we have touched 100% of the life-support system. Pollution caused by us is everywhere and impacting the health of the life- support system. Flows have changed, and some have increased by several orders of magnitude. We are taking the planet on an uncharted trajectory; we have no plan for where we want to take our home planet, and we have no design process to come up with such a plan. Do we want a planet where, for example, currently 65 million humans are searching for a new home because the one they had is gone or uninhabitable? Do we want a planet where one species takes all and leaves nothing for other species?

It seems like we are Mars-forming Earth. Is this the future planet we want? Instead of striving for innovations that would increase the carrying capacity of the planet, we might want to strive for ways to live within the boundaries and constrain ourselves to fit in. A restoration lab would be better than innovation lab.

It also strikes me that humans are easily ready to control the population size for other animals, but have great dif culties to act on the need to control our own population size. Looking at the SDGs, this dif culty is strikingly obvious. The most important goal that would lay the foundation for all other goals was not included in the global goals – a goal I want to describe as “SDG 0: Responsible Procreation.” For me this would be the most important goal in order to adhere to the warnings that scientists sent to humanity in 1992 and now again.


1. Bonnar, L. et al. (2002). Understanding Dali’s Slave Market with the
Disappearing Bust of Voltaire: A case study in the scale information
driving perception. Perception, DOI: 10.1068/p3276.

2. Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.
Accessed on November 16, 2017 at

3. Ripple, William J., Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Mauro
Galetti, Mohammed Alamgir, Eileen Crist, Mahmoud I. Mahmoud, William F. Laurance; World Scientists’
Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, BioScience, bix125,

Responsible Procreation: Reduce population 
growth to -2% by 2025.


0.1: by 2020 make a global effort to educate young women and men about the importance of responsible procreation for humanity’s future.

0.2: by 2020 introduce incentives for those who voluntarily give up their rights to have own children.

0.3: by 2020 introduce incentives for those who adopt or foster children.

0.4: by 2020 make available free support for family planning to all.

0.5: by 2020 remove all incentives for having more than 1 child per couple.

0.6: by 2025 introduce a tax (negative incentive) for those who have more than one own child.

Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative / Old Dominion University Norfolk, Va. /