New York Times Selects Professor’s Research
Among Top Ideas of 2002
Feb 12, 2003
By Melissa Joseph
|©Shadow drawings demonstrate theory of perception
Psychology professor John Kennedy is not the type of person to make
assumptions. If he were, he never would have uncovered groundbreaking
research that according to the New York Times, “Makes
us change the way we think.”
In the early 1970’s Kennedy made a remarkable discovery that
you have to see to believe or, at the very least, to understand.
Kennedy used a series of shadow images by 1950s psychologist Craig
Mooney to test the following thesis: The line in an outline drawing
stands for the edges of surfaces.
To demonstrate his theory, see figures A and B (right). Cover
figure B with your hand. Now look at figure A. What do you see? You
may see some sort of map. Now, uncover figure B. The “map”
is actually an image of a man. With this exercise, Kennedy astounded
the academic world and proved that perspective really is
However, it was his next idea that sparked a controversy among
experts and more than 30 years later has moved the New York
Times and the London Times to announce Kennedy’s
research to the broader world.
In developing his PhD thesis, Kennedy wondered how it would apply
to blind people. His doctoral advisor said it didn’t matter
because, “Blind people can’t understand pictures.”
Kennedy disagreed. He had a feeling that the blind could appreciate
pictures via touch. He speculated that they could in fact draw objects
they have never seen, and set out to prove it.
Esref, 40, a subject of Kennedy’s studies, has been drawing
and painting in his native Turkey since he was a child. He’s not
an accomplished artist, but Esref’s lively and colourful
paintings of a clown on a unicycle and a vase of flowers astonished
Kennedy because of their technical accuracy and more so because Esref
has been blind since birth.
For the past 30 years Kennedy and his students have traveled the
world testing various people like Esref on their abilities to draw
what they have never seen. He compares their work to people with sight
of the same age. Remarkably, Kennedy says the results suggest that
blind children develop drawing skills the same way sighted people do
and possess the same basic abilities to create realistic drawings of
When asked what moved him to choose the subject of his research,
Kennedy responds that blind people often surprise him with their
abilities. He says his work continues to “present interesting
puzzles and phenomena that amaze and intrigue him.”
Gaia, 12, from Italy, has been partially blind from birth and
totally blind since seven. She has been drawing pictures on her own
since she was two. Naturally gifted, Gaia is the youngest person who
draws frequently that Kennedy has studied. When asked to draw a row of
apples, Gaia drew only one. Kennedy then asked why she did not draw
the other apples and Gaia replied, “You cannot see them because
they are lined up behind this one” – revealing her
appreciation for perspective and the position of objects in a picture.
When Kennedy asked her to draw three objects – a pear, apple and
a block – on a table from various angles and points of view. In
each new drawing, she positioned each object in exactly the right
position relative to the other objects. When asked if he ever gets
bored with his research,
Kennedy’s response shows his passion and enthusiasm.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
“There are so many positive implications to my work,
particularly on the education of the blind – that is a great
motivator for me.” Museums throughout the world are adapting
their programming as a result of Kennedy’s research. One
organization is even producing 20 volumes on art history for the
“Braille is a vital communication tool,” says Kennedy.
“But words are conventional symbols, not so pictures. My work
has shown that blind people get satisfaction from visual art. They
understand the technical elements of drawings and enjoy expressing
themselves through art.”
Professor John Kennedy is the chair of life sciences and
teaches three courses in psychology at UTSC. His books are the leading
instructional texts on drawing and the blind.
Melissa Joseph is manager, marketing and communications at U of