Debunking the pseudoscience behind the "3D can't work" myth

It's true that many recent 3D movies have sucked. But now Roger Ebert claims there's a scientific reason such flicks fail - our brains can't handle 3D. Now Slate's Dan Engber debunks the pseudoscience behind this widely-held belief.

In a terrific takedown of Ebert's widely-quoted article about why 3D can't work, Slate science editor Engber explains how all media affects our brains in ways that evolution never intended. And the idea that 3D could never work isn't sound neuroscience.

Here is how Engber begins his argument:

Ebert writes, in an attempt to explain why movies like Clash of the Titans totally suck, "But what about rapid movement toward the viewer? Yes, we see a car aiming for us. But it advances by growing larger against its background, not by detaching from it. Nor did we evolve to stand still and regard its advance. To survive, we learned instinctively to turn around, leap aside, run away. We didn't just stand there evolving the ability to enjoy a 3-D movie."

OK, let's not quibble with the idea that human beings might have evolved to jump away from oncoming automobiles on the prehistoric savannah. I'm more interested in the two notions that follow from this dubious logic. First, that we ought not consume any form of entertainment that doesn't derive from a selected biological trait; and, second, that standard flat-screen cinema is somehow better suited to our genetic makeup-more natural, I guess-than 3-D.

I wonder if Ebert really believes that the arts should cater to our Darwinian design, or that we're incapable of enjoying anything for which our brain wasn't delicately prewired. But in the event that he does, I'd only point out that such gimmicky and distracting art forms as, say, music, may very well be fiddling with our cortex in ways that have nothing to do with the fight-or-flight demands of a saber-toothed tiger attack.

It's just as silly to presume that viewing a film in 3-D is any less natural-from an evolutionary perspective or otherwise-than watching it flat. For starters, the human eye did not evolve to see elephants stomping across the Serengeti at 24 frames per second. Nor are we biologically attuned to jump cuts, or focus pulls, or the world seen through a rectangular box the sides of which happen to form a ratio of 1.85 to 1. Nor indeed was man designed to gaze at any image while having no control over which objects are in focus and which are blurry. If all those distinctly unnatural aspects of standard, two-dimensional cinema seem unobtrusive, it's only because we've had 125 years to get used to them.

And he continues from there, utterly demolishing the idea that there's any scientific truth to Ebert's argument about 3D. You've got to read this article - it's a hilarious debunking of myths about 3D.