Visionary Research: New York Times Selects Professors Research Among Top Ideas of 2002

By Melissa Joseph


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 everything.

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 everyday objects.

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 blind.

“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 T Scarborough.