Suspension of disbelief

Some time ago, colleagues of mine brought to my attention an old theatrical concept: Suspension of Disbelief. The team was using the concept to help support a number of design decisions that had been made in a project.

English writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term in the early 19th century to describe one’s willingness to suspend their critical faculties in order to allow themselves to briefly believe in something surreal. It is a sacrifice of logic and rationality for the sake of enjoyment and pleasure.

When we read a novel, listen to a story, watch a film, etc., there is something taking place in our minds that allows us, for that brief duration, to fall into a world of imaginary. In other words, we’re willingly ignoring our basic understanding of reality because our desire to become part of whatever imaginary world is being laid out in front of us is too great.

A good example of this is Peter Pan in the play ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’. Anyone who watches the play doesn’t truly believe that Peter Pan can fly. It is also true that they do not believe in magic and that they have a well-enough understanding of science and gravity to know that the plot of the storyline is fictional. Yet, at that moment when they are in the theatre watching the eternal boy fly with the help of fairy dust and happy thoughts, their desire to engage with the story supersedes all. They are willingly suspending their disbelief despite having a clear sight of the suspension cables that the actor uses to swing over the stage. They are not interrupting the play by shouting out that it is impossible for a boy to fly. They are willingly choosing to ignore their understanding of reality because they want to believe in the fantasy of the story.

It is clear to me that Suspension of Disbelief is, for the most part, an internal process. However, I also suspect that one’s surroundings, or more especially the lighting environment we find ourselves in, can facilitate this process.

To return with the example of the play Peter Pan, one could argue that Suspension of Disbelief is a far richer experience when the lighting hierarchy and brightness composition of the theatre presents the audience with dim auditorium wall lighting to a point where the audience forgets the confining auditorium walls are even there. We could ask ourselves how engaged would the audience be if the stage lighting rather focused on the suspending contraptions and cables instead of the actor? We would probably find it quite distracting from the plot.

Now to flip this on its head and look at an opposite example. We’ve all heard the saying: ‘a room that is well daylit with walls painted in light colours will feel ample and larger than it really is’. I think this provides us with a hint towards the crux of today’s thought experiment. What is lighting doing to make the room feel ample if the room’s dimensions have not physically changed? Lighting is revealing a bright room where there is more to see in greater detail, not that the room is larger.

At a 1st glance, these 2 examples seem to be fundamentally different. However, I would argue that they originate from the same lighting principals. Our willingness to suspend our disbelief is influenced greatly by what the lighting design is revealing and concealing from us. What do we experience when we selectively conceal? We divert our attention to what is revealed and consciously (or subconsciously…) ignore what is concealed. What do we experience when we hyper-reveal? An overload of visual information giving us the impression that what we are seeing is ampler than it really is.

The common ground of the 2 examples is the perceptual influence lighting has on the viewer. Once we get our heads around this concept, then we understand the importance of lighting in the architectural experience. Today’s blog is a good reminder that our basic understanding of the world is predominantly visual. All visual information is light and inevitably, it influences how we experience and understand the world around us.

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