I teach a class for 4th, 5th and 6th graders, tantalizingly called “The Mystery Class.” In it, I ask them how they know anything, then I share with them optical illusions.
I created this optical illusion specifically for the class. In it each dot is the same color, but the dots appear quite different in brightness and shade. Have a look:
Often, students think I am tricking them. Some sure look darker. Others certainly look more purple. Perhaps you don’t believe either. The world is fully of tricks. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can examine the colors yourself with any image editor. Here is a version side by side with a second image with the exact same array of dots without the context of the stripes and gradient.
This illusion still fools me and I created it. So, even if we know the dots are the same color, why do our brains persist in being fooled?
The answer rests in the fact that our brains are hardwired for snap judgements, and shortcuts. That might sound harsh, but a brain is helping me type this right now, and it confesses that, yeah, brains do play fast and loose all the time. In this case, the illusion is based entirely on a context which plays with how our eyes compensate for color and brightness to help us navigate the world.
The thing about this perception is: it will never go away. You can’t retrain your brain to see those dots as the same color, no matter how much knowledge or experience you have. This is part of the system you were born with. You are hardwired for it. The best you can do is recognize you are seeing it wrong and understand why your brain works as it does. The very worst thing you can do is to dig in and refuse to believe your perception is wrong. Sadly, people do it all the time.
There are people, right now, who still count themselves supporters of a “leader” who is so obviously corrupt that in order to defend him, his lawyer resorted to declaring that “truth isn’t truth” because actual facts are so stacked against him.
The mindset that requires a person to twist and contort to such illogic will easily to bend towards conspiracy when looking for a way to explain how they could not have been wrong. I did it myself once, with this optical illusion:
When I first saw the rotating snakes illusion (above), I was convinced I was being trolled by a clever flash animation that somehow was timed to know where I was looking and where I wasn’t. This clever animation, I believed, somehow knew how to spin only the circles of snakes I wasn’t looking directly at. I was wrong.
In order to disabuse myself of this absurd notion, I had to pull the image into Photoshop to prove to myself the effect was real. It was a relief because, while I didn’t understand the mechanism behind how it worked, I could at least rule out that the timing of my gaze was something the internet could second guess. Despite a brief correspondence with the illusion’s creator, Akiyoshi Kitaoka, I still don’t fully understand how the rotating snakes work, but I know, at least, that the error is somewhere within me and my perceptual systems. I would hate to think what sort of person I would be if I insisted I was right and had harangued Dr. Kitaoka instead of asking him about his incredible illusion. But, again, people do this sort of thing all the time — even good people who believe they are doing the right thing.
We all build our view of the world from the information we have, and invariably some of that information is faulty. In these divisive times, where we want so strongly to prove we are right, it is good to both step back and ask where our weaknesses lie, and also to recognize that humans are built flawed. We put far too much stock in our own perceptions. Gut reactions are important and necessary, but they also deserve our examination. It is easy enough to look at an optical illusion, take that extra step back, and wonder, but where our emotions are invested and our assumptions are entrenched we are often standing too close to see . You can choose to stay teachable or you can persist in being wrong.