Perception and Size Constancy in Through the Looking Glass

It’s no secret that I love the way Lewis Carroll twists reality in his writing. In my university application, I mentioned his work Sylvie and Bruno, and how it’s ambiguous which worlds are real. Carroll is especially effective in this of making the big small and the small big – “I’ve shot up like a telescope!” – contrasting his fictional world, so similar in tiny pieces, with what we expect.

For instance, in Wonderland, Alice has various trials where she physically is effected by the ‘magic’ (take it whatever way you will!) edibles. Carroll uses this plot-device several times. However, in the second book – and the one I prefer – Carroll uses perception to a more scientific level – in that, I mean he twists what we know of perception, rather than what we know of physical size, as he does in book 1.

Size constancy is rife in optical illusions

Size constancy, where the brain recognises objects to be of the same physical properties, the ‘distal stimulus’, even when the image on the retina, the ‘proximal image’, is different due to our angle of sight or our sensation of the object. We know a football on the floor is a football, regardless of whether we are looking at it from above, an angle, or lying flat on our stomachs, staring. We can also generally discover a football from simply feeling it.

You’ll see size constancy in the twisted world of Carroll. Alice encounters all these odd and unusual creatures, objects, lands, yet she still sees them as they have originally been in her ‘normal’* world.

One scene in particular infuriated me as a child when I watched the movie featuring Kate Beckinsale. In chapter 5, Alice buys an egg from the White Queen in sheep form, and, eventually, it morphs into Humpty Dumpty, showing a clever way of scene-change. In the transition, though, Alice reaches for the egg she has bought – “I never put things into people’s hands – that would never do,” says the Sheep indignantly – but, the closer she walks, the smaller the egg goes, or, possibly, the further away. We still understand that the shape – until it becomes a talking, breathing character, anyway – is a common chicken egg.

This, you see, is an example of size constancy.

Sadly, Carroll underplays this scene in the book…

Size constancy is one of the parts of humanity and the animal kingdom which never leaves us. In fact, Bower found that even infants experience size constancy, though they do not clearly remember and recall the exact sizes of their objects (see Piaget‘s conservation-of-liquid research*). The development of perception exists even at a very early age. What a wonderful organ is the eye!

Another group who have trouble distinguishing distance constancy is schizophrenics, as they live in a ‘flatter’ world, where their ‘input’ signals and stimuli are muddled; just as how they cannot separate their inner monologue from an external voice source.

As I’m finding out as I journey through my course, perception is not limited to the visual. In Through the Looking Glass, Carroll also plays with the cutaneous and proprioception perception of touch. For instance, in chapter 2, Alice encounters a garden of live, talking flowers who go on to taunt her for having “tumbled…petals”.

Alice asks, “How is it that you talk so nicely?” And, of course, the answer is that the bed is too hard for any of the flowers to sleep as ours do. Okay, what has that to do with misperception? Well, one may argue that none of what Alice encounters is really what she feels – a disjoin between the literal world and her experience of it. She is, understandably, confused at talking flowers, whereas the flowers are more exasperated at Alice’s ability to walk around the garden.

They see things differently.

Can you think of other examples of misperception or deliberately devious writing in fiction, modern or classical? Have you read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass? What examples of ambiguous or unusual writing did you discover from Carroll?

I know I mentioned I’d post this before. Sorry for the delay, though I’m glad I can apply my new knowledge of my perception module to the ideas Carroll presents to me as a reader, writer and scientist/philosopher (delete as appropriate). Maybe, when I’m in the mood, I’ll give a brief introduction to the specialised types of cutaneous nerves and proprioceptors needed for controlled movement. It’s more interesting than the names give credit.

*Yes, I use ‘normal’ subjectively here, to mean about the world of the reader. Of course, where perception is concerned, normality cannot exist, since each soul eyes the world with different proximal images. A bit of philosophy for you. 😉

*By pure coincidence, at the time of writing, I will be looking at Piaget’s theory of development tomorrow as part of my Development Psychology module. His ideas of intelligence and perception growth fascinate me.


5 thoughts on “Perception and Size Constancy in Through the Looking Glass

  1. Off the top of my head, Philip Dick’s “A Maze Of Death” comes to mind. The characters are exploring on a strange world, and when they leave their shelter they see a huge building in the distance, as they approach it the building grows both smaller and closer, until they are returning to the small shelter that they just left.

    This is the most blatant clue that the characters are living in a fantasy world. (William Gibson borrowed that trick to suggest a virtual reality in “Neuromancer”.)

    Aaron Allston’s “Gealeta In 2D” is about an artist who can make his drawings come to life, and the distance at which he views his creations on the page determines their size when they become physical.

    On a more cognitive level, Jerry Bruckheimer’s film “Men In Black” plays with the audience’s perception of size as it relates to importance, making very powerful items very small.

  2. Pingback: Re-blog | anm006
  3. Hello, I love the first image here on size constancy and would like to use it in a paper I’m writing on the history of psychology. Do you have a source for the image? Is it under copyright?

    1. I’m afraid I have been unable to find the original source for the image, but from what I have seen, quite a few people have used it freely, so I suspect it doesn’t have an existing cppyright.

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