Elisha Goldstein’s book, The Now Effect, has sent my brain spinning in yet another direction.

The anecdote:

A professor stood before a philosophy class holding an empty jar. As the students took their seats, she began filling the jar with golf balls. When they reached the top, she asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then took a bag of pebbles and poured them into the jar, and they made their way between the spaces of the golf balls. Again she asked the students if the jar was full, and they agreed that it was.

But the professor had another trick up her sleeve. She brought out a bag of sand and proceeded to pour the grains into the jar, filling up more of the remaining space. Again the question came: “It’s full now, correct?” The answer was a resounding “Yes.”

The professor then took a sip of her coffee and dumped the rest into the jar, filling up spaces that no one thought was there.

The thought: how does our brain process negative space?

Like, for example, the space between the golf balls that the pebbles fill, the spaces between the pebbles that the sand fills, and so on.

Imagine a jar full of golf balls. What does the space where there are no golf balls look like? I see small spaces, sort of scalloped. Not much room to roam.

When you learn to draw you are taught to look at the negative as well as the positive spaces. For example, if you are drawing a model with a hand on her hip, the triangle of space inside her bent her arm is as much a part of the drawing as the arm itself. Sometimes looking at the negative spaces in a form gives you a more accurate view of the positive spaces.

In her brilliant book Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards talks about how when we start drawing, we tend to get stuck on visual representations of things rather than seeing what is there.

In other words, we might draw a child’s version of a flower (a round circle surrounded by petals) rather than the actual flower that is in front of us. By looking at negative spaces, we take our focus from the idea of a flower to the reality of an object in space. And that is when we start being able to draw what is there.

The drawing that illustrates this post is a classic example of how our shifting focus can change our perception. Do you see a young woman in a hat, or an old woman in a babushka?

How is it we can see the same image but not the same image? Do different parts of the brain light up depending on how we perceive the image? What does that mean? If we can retrain the brain by strengthening new neural connections, what  happens if we start training ourselves to look both at things and the spaces between the things?

Goldstein applies this concept to the way we live life, with the golf balls representing the most important things in our lives. If you don’t put the golf balls in the jar first, you have no room for them. It’s another useful image.

And it makes me think about the spaces between the golf balls. If we take our focus away from the “things” in our lives—people, work, obligations—what do the spaces between them look like? How much room is there? Is the space cramped? Airy? Is there room to roam or is it all chopped up into little bits? What about our relationships? What does the empty space there look like? Does it look like something missing, or does it look like breathing room?

Are we stuck seeing a representation of something in our lives rather than what is actually there? And can training ourselves to look at the negative spaces change the way we perceive the world?