VISUAL ENVIRONMENT AS A SOCIAL FACTOR
by Vasily A. Filin
Dr. of Biology, Director, Moscow Center "Videoecology"
1. Automation of saccades as the basis of visual perception
2. Homogeneous visual environment
2.1. Homogeneous visual environment in architecture
3. Aggressive visual environment
4. Social consequences of the unnaturalurban visual environment
4.1. New Moscow neighbourhoods are "painted" in unpleasant colours
4.2. City stress
4.3. Urban visual environment and myopia
4.4. Sensorial and visual "deficit"
4.5. "Syndrome of big city"
4.6. Aggressiveness of the mankind
Visual environment strongly affects human behaviour. It is quite possible that the cheerfulness of the inhabitants of the southern coasts of Greece, Italy and other "nice" areas of Earth is a result of a comfortable visual environment. However, dwellers of many modern cities have no such privilege, since their visual environment is unhealthy. Vast surfaces of static urban buildings, uniform colouring, straight lines and right angles - everything that makes up a normal city landscape - affect people, mostly through their eyes. Urban sets of visual elements and colons add up to create an environment strikingly different from the one in which humans developed as a species. The problem is exacerbated further by the growth of cities further separating people from nature. In addition to that, modern construction materials look less and less like natural materials. Unnatural visual environment of the cities negatively affects people's health and their social behaviour. "Ugliness will destroy the world," wrote Dostoevsky. Many modern cities have taken ugliness to the extreme which has made visual environment an acute problem. The field studying the impact of the visual environment on the society is referred to as videoecology.
AUTOMATION OF SACCADES AS THE BASIS OF VISUAL PERCEPTION
Eye is the most dynamic since organ never resting at a fixed point. It is easy to check by observing another person's eyes. There are two main types of the eye movement: slow and fast. Fast movements were named "saccades" (from the old French word for a "sale flap"). Saccades of both right and left eyes are absolutely synchronies and of the same amplitude. The saccades are also oriented in the same direction. There are quite many of them: two or more per second, i.e., the eye shifts every 0.5 seconds. Thus, the eye is constantly scanning the environment.
Comparing the parameters of the saccades in different conditions (following a real or imaginary object in the dark, drawing a shape, looking at a picture or several objects) showed that the total number of saccades is always similar. This is true no matter whether the person is awake or asleep. Moreover, rabbits also have the same number of saccades. It is not a mere coincidence. Experimental results that we obtained in 1967 led as to formulate a concept of saccadic automation. Automation as a physiological phenomenon is well-known: automation of heart, automation of breathing, automation of digestive system. To this list we add saccadic automation.
HOMOGENEOUS VISUAL ENVIRONMENT
A homogeneous visual environment means an environment in which visible elements are not available at all or their number is sharply reduced. The reasons for its appearance can be different. For example, the number of visible details in the surrounding environments for the people with weak vision is being decreased as a result of the reduction of the eyes' ability to differentiate. A homogeneous visual environment can be found in a mine: black coal is everywhere. In the nature, it is represented by the vast snow spaces of the Arctic and the Antarctic. Today, people face homogeneous environments in a city, at home, at work, or in transport.
Homogeneous visual environment in architecture
Modern mass housing construction creates a great number of homogeneous visual fields. The best example is the flanks of the buildings.
When looking at a bare wall, nothing "catches" the eye after a successive saccade. This means that if a person looks at such surface for just 3 seconds his eye generates 6 to 9 saccades, and all of them fall on a bare wall with nothing to fix on. It is similar to a feeling when a man makes a step and does not feel a firm ground. An eye "falls" about 10 times in 3 seconds. It is easy to imagine the resulting discomfort. Sometimes it can be an asphalt surface in front of a homogeneous building. A man approaching such building finds himself completely surrounded by homogeneous fields. This leads to acute psychological discomfort. Therefore, we are convinced that the existence of visual elements, in particular, architectural decorations, are of a great importance. A concept of the "architectural excesses" is very harmful, and not just aesthetically. Glass surfaces, large construction panels, pressed wood panels, one-colour finishing lead to the homogenization of visual environment. A man becomes a victim of his own creation. His glass and concrete buildings neglect videoecology and thus are bound to become a negative element.
AGGRESSIVE VISUAL ENVIRONMENT
Aggressive visual field is a field consisting of a great number of identical visual elements. In the modern urban architecture aggressive visual environments abound. It is a characteristic of all high-rise buildings that have large wall surfaces with a great number of windows.
Such buildings can have over 500 identical windows. One quickly gets dazzled when looking at such a surface. Saccadic automation does not work properly in the face of such aggressive field. A man cannot tell the difference between the windows that he looked at before and after the saccade. Windows are so similar that the eye gets confused and fails to perform its function: to provide information about various objects. This is hardly possible in a natural environment where a man knows precisely what he is looking at, how big and how far is the object. As a result, the man adequately perceives his surrounding. Saccadic automation shifts the eye from one window to another every 0.5 seconds. After each shift the brain receives a similar information: "window," "window," "window." This inevitably leads to overcharging the brain with repetitive information. In contrast, in the forest each saccade brings in a new "picture." The same is true for looking at an old, architecturally decorated building. The bottom line is: "architectural excesses" are necessary and healthy. They are essential functional elements permitting the eye to work properly. That is how the best architects saw them.
SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE UNNATURAL URBAN VISUAL ENVIRONMENT
Any alterations of the habitat invariably have negative consequences,such as deterioration of health and social conditions. Here are some examples.
New Moscow neighbourhoods are "painted" in unpleasant colours
People want to live on a nice street in a nice house with other nice buildings around. Some are lucky to find such a place. A friend of mine used to tell me that she could see, from the windows of her comfortable apartment in an old beautiful building, a spectacular view of the Kremlin. At any moment she can please herself with contemplating the masterpieces of its architecture with multiple towers, domes, hipped roofs and the dominating Ivan the Great bell-tower. "All this can not be described,"wrote MikhailYu. Lermontov, "one has to see it… one has to feel what they are telling to your heart and imagination." Of course, it is a priceless apartment. Quite a different situation is in modern districts, where people can only see the endless aggressive environment composed of modern straight buildings, with green patches down below completely suppressed by those concrete giants.
Sociological studies showed that 72% of the inhabitants of the new neighbourhoods would like to move somewhere. We believe that the unnatural visual environment with aggressive and homogeneous fields is one of the strongest factors leading to such situation. 35% of the respondents in a study conducted by S. Gabidulina stated that the new neighbourhoods were associated in their minds with unpleasant colours.
BANSO, a real estate firm, conducted the first study of subjective evaluations of the Moscow districts. This study permitted them to map the Moscow districts according to their attractiveness ("Kommersant - daily " No.76, 24 April 1993). It is important that the visual environment (called in the study "aesthetic attractiveness") was named number one by its importance, superseding such factors as public transportation, stores, social composition, ecology and the crime rate. Indeed, visual environment is one of the key factors in the life of the city dwellers. All the new Moscow districts on the above map were colored in black and considered unattractive. These districts are notorious for the abundance of aggressive and homogeneous visual fields which perpetuate the unnatural visual environment.
In the course of the evolution a man got accustomed to the tranquil rhythm of country living. Endless irritants of the city environment, with dominating visual stimuli, lead to the "city stress," which is a combination of negative physiological and psychological emotions. In the unnatural visual environment multiple irritants suppress individual psyche and can lead to pathological condition. In the urban environment, visual stress adds to noise, vibration, and the general contamination. This includes city traffic as well. Street cars, buses, metro trains with their many windows literally "cut" across the eyes.
City crowds is an aggressive visual field per se composed of a multitude of similar objects. Going down the escalator during the rush hour one can see a dizzying sea of heads and hats. The city multitude, as an aggressive visual environment, can provoke aggressive reactions on the part of its members.
The issue of stress resulting from living in the high-rise apartment buildings has been studied and discussed. The higher is the apartment located, the less natural is the view from its windows. From high above one can only see roofs and identical apartment blocks forming an aggressive visual environment. Studies showed that in the buildings overlooking both the picturesque Moscow Canal and other apartments blocks there are arguments among the family members about who should occupy the rooms on the Canal side.
Thus, along with the noise, vibration, smells, contamination and congestion, the unnatural visual environment of the cities adds to the city stress. The stresses interpolate augmenting each other.
Urban visual environment and myopia
Myopia is the most common eye defect. It has become a curse of entire countries. Scientists are searching for its causes, but they are still far from finding a comprehensive explanation of this mass phenomenon. We believe that the visual environment can be one of the causes of myopia. According to our studies, myopia cam result from the impact of homogeneous and aggressive fields in the cities which generate psychological and physical discomfort.
Sensorial and visual "deficit"
Psychological studies showed that spending a long time in the conditions of limited sensorial information leads to "sensorial deficit." This condition is well known to polar explorers, speleologysts, submariners, astronauts, pilots, metro train operators, miners and workers in the enclosed environments. "Visual deficit" is particularly stressful. This is how V.Peskov, a participant in an Antarctic sleigh expedition, describes his experience: "On a long trip one is especially missing visual images. So when people come back, take a bath and eat, they watch three-four movies before they satisfy themselves and can start living a normal life of a winterer." As we can see, it takes three-four movies (about 5 hours of watching) to overcome the visual deficit created by the homogeneous visual environment.
A pilot describes his impression from flying over the Antarctic: "Imagine sitting in a room near a working engine and staring onto the white selling for hours." Obviously, this can quickly lead to sensorial deficit and, after a prolonged exposure, to serious disruptions of the nervous system.
In the Far North, where visual environment is the worst, neurological diseases are more common. One in every three people living in Norilsk reported irritations, rage, depression and anxiety.
Finally, we would like to site the words of polar explorer M. Mare: "I would have been happy to trade my salary for a chance to get a gimpse of the green grass, blossoming meadow with cows on it, a birch or beech forest in the autumn colours, wet in the rain." Big city dwellers better than anybody else can understand Mare's words. They do everything possible, give their time and money, only to spend a weekend in the country, looking at the green grass, birch forest and cows.
"Syndrome of big city"
Urbanization leads to a steady growth in the number of mental diseases. Many psychiatrists believe that up to 80% of their patients suffer from the "big city syndrome," the main features of which are dismal mood, mental instability, and aggressiveness. We are strongly convinced that the growth in the number of mental diseases is largely a result of the unnatural visual environment in the cities. When meeting with the architects, I sometimes say that, if they continue building cities the way they are doing now, they should build mental facilities at an even faster rate.
Aggressiveness of the mankind
According to Dmitry Likhachev, aggressiveness of the mankind is on the rise. He believes that the reason is the lack of spirituality. It is, of course, a source of many evils. At the same time, it is known that the environment greatly affects humans. Aggressive visual environment often leads to the state of spontaneous exasperation. As a rule, inferior visual environment is associated with higher delinquency levels (hooliganism, drunkenness, cursing). In Moscow, for example, the further away from the centre, towards the outskirts where entire communities consist of aggressive fields, the higher the crime level. The growth of aggressiveness is stipulated by rhythmic signals affecting the basic sensor systems - vision and hearing. Visual aggressive fields consist of identical elements and rhythmically shifting mechanisms (transporters, escalators, conveyor lines, elevators, wheels, chains, pulleys, etc.). Rhythmic music creates an aggressive field for hearing (rock music, "heavy-metal," and industrial noises).
Rhythmic sensorial signals can exate a person and even provoke epileptic seizures. It is well-known to specialists. In clinical practice they use rhythmic light signals to diagnose predisposition to epilepsy. Epileptic seizures often happen to young people while dancing to a rhythmic music and flashing lights. A witness told me about a group of youngsters who, returning from a disco-club, were literally destroying everything of their way: they smashed windows, set trash bins on fire, broke trees, turned the cars over. All this was accompanied by heavy cursing. "Aggressiveness of the mankind" was very obvious there.
Countries can fully disarm, however, if the visual environment remains aggressive it will still provoke aggressive actions. Unarmed, a person will use his fists, teeth, and foul language. Therefore, along with the disarmament, it is essential to create an appropriate environment that would rule out any motivation to the aggressive actions.
Visual environment is an important component of the everyday life. Every time it is distorted, there are negative consequences, sometimes on the global scale. It is partly true that the luck of spirituality is a result of the negative visual environment. Ilya Glazunov once mentioned that Pushkin would not be born in an apartment building.
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