THIS IS the English translation of a well-known book on vision by German psychologist Wolfgang Metzger (1899-1979). First published as Gesetze des Sehens in 1936, the book was enlarged and reissued in 1953 and again in 1975. A student of the Berlin Gestalt psychologists, Metzger was Max Wertheimer's assistant at Frankfort am Main, then took over his teacher's position when the Nazis forced the latter out. Later in life, Metzger was also Director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Münster. It is astonishing that seventy years elapsed before this book's translation, an achievement that was brought about by the collaborative efforts of Lothar Spillman (a prominent psychophysicist and neuroscientist, retired from the faculty at the University of Freiburg), Michael Wertheimer (Max's son), Steven Lehar and others.


I remember seeing Metzger's book for the first time in the 1960s, as an undergraduate art student. I could not understand the text (it was the second edition) because I do not read German, nor could I read the third edition, but I bought a copy nevertheless. By studying its plentiful illustrations (this edition has nearly 200), I could easily guess at the contents. It was clear, for example, that the author intended to demonstrate that there are natural inclinations that influence human vision, regardless of culture. There may be no better examples of these than in situations in which vision is subverted or even prevented—most famously in camouflage—in part because, under certain conditions, as Spillman's introduction states, we sometimes see what is not present before us; at other times we do not see what is present; while, at still other times, we see what is present but we see it in ways that are different from its physical nature.


In a post-World War II interview, Metzger himself described his wartime research as "the psychology of perception as applied to camouflage problems." Thus, it comes at no surprise that certain sections of this book discuss camouflage (natural for the most part, not military), for which Metzger borrows images from an earlier widely read volume on the same subject: Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909) by American artist Abbott H. Thayer (although his son is the author of record). Metzger was well acquainted with Thayer's discoveries, while the latter most likely knew nothing about Gestalt psychology, having independently arrived at his own laws of seeing, which he referred to as the "laws of disguise." Also, while Metzger was writing this book, another scientist, British zoologist Hugh B. Cott (who served as a camouflage officer in both World Wars) was preparing an equally ambitious work on natural camouflage, titled Adaptive Coloration in Nature (1940). Since all three authors made the claim that camouflage succeeds because of its reliance on innate biases that direct our vision daily (in humans, and, to some extent, in animals), it may help while reading Metzger's book to make concurrent visits to those of Thayer and Cott. (It also helps to take a look at an innovative chapter on motion perception that Metzger added to the second edition of this book. Translated into English by Ulric Neisser, it can be accessed on the internet at http://people.brandeis.edu/~sekuler/metzgerChapter/.)


The significance of Metzger's book as an historic document is beyond question. In addition, as Lothar Spillman suggests, it may be opportune right now for this old but still-fresh book to be "rediscovered" because of related developments in psychology and neuroscience. The convergence of Metzger's ideas with advances in research techniques, concludes Spillman, may encourage scientists "to seek brain correlates of the phenomena that to this day defy explanations in terms of contemporary concepts of neural representation and computation."

 



 

Wolfgang Metzger. Translated by Lothar Spillmann, et al. Laws of Seeing. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-262-13467-5.

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