The Peril of Parallel Lines

I was standing on the station platform, looking at the railway tracks then glancing at my newspaper. The top story jumped out at me and said: “Revealed: How Parallel Lines Can Give You a Splitting Headache.”

They can? This was certainly news to me — and the sub-editors must have thought it would be news to other readers, seeing as they’d placed it on the front page.

To mark the moment I took a shot of the rails in front of me (below). It’s not a “street shot,” but it’s kinda pretty, especially with the red weeds (Herb-Robert?) and sycamore shoots growing between the tracks. Could such an innocent scene really give me a headache if I looked at it too long?


Apparently, the answer is “yes” for many people. Scientists at the University Medical Centre Utrecht have discovered that regular parallel lines can exaggerate a natural pattern of activity in the brain called “gamma oscillations.” They do so in a way that’s been detected just before epileptic patients have a seizure.

The researchers have even suggested a plausible theory as to why this happens. Because there are no straight lines in nature, the human brain has not yet evolved complete protection against the man-made environment — which teems with straight lines, many of them parallel to each other.

Striped Patterns Can Be Irritating
As a street photographer I’m trying to recall whether looking at vistas with lots of buildings has ever triggered a violent headache. I can’t say it has, although I certainly get debilitating migraines from time to time. I’m not alone in this. Ten million people suffer from migraine in the U.K., twenty times the number of those who are epileptic. The researchers believe there may be a link.

Do you find stripes irritating? Quoted in “The Times,” Utrecht researcher Dr Dora Hermes said: “Even perfectly healthy people may feel modest discomfort from the images that are most likely to trigger seizures in photosensitive epilepsy.” She went on to say that making sharply-defined stripes just a little bit blurred or fuzzy can greatly reduce their negative effect.

As regards interior decor, I’ve never been very keen on striped wallpaper, the sort which often decorates a doctor’s waiting room. My tutor at university, the late Maurice Cowling, had vertically striped wallpaper throughout his rooms at Peterhouse — and he wore vertically striped shirts that almost matched. It was quite hard to spot him on first entering his apartment.

Cameras Have Fits, Too
Believe me, it’s not just people who freak out when they see parallel lines. Cameras do it, too.

I found an interesting weed-covered building site in Bangkok and attempted to focus on a flat, distant wall. The camera just refused to focus, no matter how many times I half-pressed the button. Worse, it wouldn’t focus thereafter, causing me to take the nuclear option: switch off, remove the battery, replace, fire up, and — presto! — it worked for other, “normal” subjects.

Later, I looked up the problem in the 5DIII manual and found an interesting page called “When Autofocus Fails” (p.110). There it was in black and white. “Subjects Difficult to Focus” — including “repetitive patterns,” such as “skyscraper windows.” It didn’t mention anything about the camera having an epileptic fit, but mine certainly did.

Parallel Lines in Street Photography
I’ve been looking through my pictures to see if I have many shots in which parallel lines are the dominating factor. I don’t. There’s always some ameliorating feature, a curve, a twist, a diagonal, or something else to soften the rigorous man-made lines of modern architecture.

I think architects and designers have already woken up to the parallel line problem (except possibly in China and Hong Kong). They’ve made skyscrapers less regular in shape and they use sculptures and plants to break up the rigidity of form. I doubt if the couple in my featured photo (at the top), taken at Em Quartier in Bangkok, are suffering from a headache, unless it’s from looking at their mobile phones.

Here’s another example (below), also from Em — which represents some of the latest ideas in city architecture — a brilliant contrast of curvy sculpture placed against a vista of straight lines.


Just looking at it gives me alpha waves — surely the opposite of gamma oscillations?

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