How Depth Perception Works

Depth perception is the ability to perceive the world in three dimensions (3D) and to judge the distance of objects. Depth perception is achieved when the brain processes different pictures from each eye and combines them to form a single 3D image. Depth perception makes it possible for the eyes to determine distances between objects and to tell if something is near to us or far away.

A long, rounded bridge
Mamoru Muto / Aflo

In order to have depth perception, you must have binocular vision, also known as stereopsis. The most important aspect of binocular vision is having two eyes; people relying on vision from only one eye have to rely on other visual cues to gauge depth, and their depth perception is generally less accurate.

Not having accurate depth perception can have a major impact on your life, from early childhood learning to what jobs you're able to do.

The farther your eyes are apart, the better depth perception you will have. Insects, animals, and fish that have their eyes spaced very far apart have a very high level of depth perception. 

Visual Cues That Aid Depth Perception

Monocular cues allow for some sense of depth perception even when you don't have two eyes working properly together, such as:

  • Motion Parallax: Motion parallax occurs when we move our head back and forth. Objects at different distances will move at slightly different speeds. I.n physics class, we learn that closer objects move in the opposite direction of our head movement and objects farther away move with our heads. You may not consciously be aware of this, but your brain uses the information to help determine distances.
  • Interposition: When objects overlap each other, it gives us monocular cues about which one is closer or farther away.
  • Aerial Perspective: Color and contrast cues tell give us clues to how far away an object might be. For example, when light travels from a distance, it's scattered. Scattered light blurs the outlines of things and our brain interprets this as being farther away.

Causes of Impaired Depth Perception

A lack of depth perception can be caused by numerous conditions. These include:

  • Amblyopia: Also called "lazy eye," this is a condition in which one eye is weaker than the other. This typically happens because of abnormal vision development in childhood and features decreased vision in one or both eyes.
  • Optic nerve hypoplasia: This occurs when the optic nerve, which sends visual signals from your eyes to your brain, has incomplete development before birth. It can result in partial or total vision loss in children.
  • Strabismus: This occurs when the eyes point in different directions, such as one pointing straight ahead and the other pointing inward or down.
  • Blurry vision: Numerous conditions can cause the vision in one or both eyes to be blurry, as can trauma to an eye.
  • Injury to one eye: Trauma can alter your vision, either temporarily or permanently.

Impact of a Lack of Depth Perception

A lack of depth perception can affect some key areas that are very important in life.

Lacking the ability to perceive depth can affect your life in a few ways including the following:

  • It can affect a child's ability to learn.
  • It can cause problems driving and navigating roads properly.
  • It can prevent an athlete from reaching his or her full potential.
  • It can prevent you from obtaining a certain job or occupation that requires good depth perception.

Testing Depth Perception

Having a comprehensive eye examination is the first step to fully assessing your depth perception. An optometrist or ophthalmologist will first asses your vision by measuring your visual acuity or the quality of your vision. If one eye is very blurry and one eye is not, your depth perception will be limited.

When an optometrist checks your eye muscles, he or she will perform a cover test. A cover test measures how well your eyes work together and will check for the presence of strabismus. Strabismus, such as esotropia or exotropia, is an eye muscle problem where the eyes do not work well together, or when one eye is turned in, out, up or down. If the eyes are not in perfect alignment with each other, double vision occurs, or more commonly, suppression. In order for you not to experience double vision if your eyes are not lined up, your brain will suppress the image out of the turned eye. As a result, you are really only using one eye. When this happens, you will not have good depth perception.

Fine levels of depth perception are measured using tests, such as random dot stereograms or contour stereotests. Some of these tests are designed for young children with cartoon characters so that the doctor can easily tell if the child is using binocular vision.

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Article Sources
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  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology, EyeSmart. Amblyopia: What Is Lazy Eye? Published August 23, 2019.

  3. Kaur S, Jain S, Sodhi HB, Rastogi A, Kamlesh. Optic nerve hypoplasia. Oman J Ophthalmol. 2013;6(2):77–82. doi:10.4103/0974-620X.116622

  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology, EyeSmart. What Is Strabismus? Published April 14, 2014.