Explaining the magic in everyday life
Driving down a desert highway on a sweltering day, you’ll likely see a pool of water in the distance slinking across a stretch of hot asphalt. Logically, you know it isn’t water, but a product of bending light waves and dense air. Still, you look for it as you speed closer, bracing yourself for the a splash that never comes.
Now celebrating its twelveth anniversary, the Best Illusion of the Year Contest seeks to challenge our idea of an unwavering reality. Look at any of the one-minute clips and you’ll see, like the watery oasis mirage, nothing is as it seems.
University of Nevada at Reno psychology professor Gideon P. Caplovitz, along with colleague Mathew T. Harrison, created this year's winning illusion featuring stationary, rotating Gabors that appear to drift and ripple in unison.
With more than 800,000 views on YouTube, the illusion, “Motion Integration Unleashed: New Tricks for an Old Dog,” has clearly captivated a wide audience with its brain-bending simplicity.
As a cognitive neuroscientist, Caplovitz argues that seeing is not believing—far from it, actually. What we see is a subjective result of firing synapses, a culturally reinforced idea of normality, and our own fluctuating emotions.
So just what goes into making an impressionable illusion? Caplovitz tells GOOD his lab is working to find the answer to that burning question and “focuses on visual perception and understanding how our brain sees the world.” On a typical day, they conduct experiments to create visual effects, though this doesn’t necessarily mean they are all illusions.
“We show them to people and have people report what they're seeing or we might record their brainwaves using EEG or we might do this on an FMRI scanner,” Caplovitz says adding, “But on a day-to-day basis, we're making what we call visual stimuli and many of the stimuli we make are visual illusions, in part because illusions kind of, to some degree, represent mistakes that the brain is making and interpreting what it's seeing.”
While this might not be your first guess as to the practical purpose of illusions, it makes sense that these visual tricks would reveal hiccups in our brain chemistry. Caplovitz drives this point home, saying, “Our grandparents say ‘Learn from your mistakes, you can learn from your mistakes.’... Sometimes, these [illusions] are theoretically driven… Many times, we just stumble upon them.”
In this way, the craft of making illusions mimics art. Missteps in the process allow researchers to discover innovative ways to unlock hidden inconsistencies in the brain, and in a way, the method mirrors the results. If you’ve been on the internet at all in the past ten years, then you’ve noticed the popularity of illusions and likely sat mesmerized in front of a few yourself. But why is that? What is the reason behind our captivation? “Well, I think,” Caplovitz says, “that to some degree, we are born and raised and we sort of have this subjective impression of what our experiences are of the world around us.”
But does that mean we also play a role in constructing much of what we see? To some extent, yes. Caplovitz explains:
My subjective experience is kind of like a video camera. I'm seeing the world for what it is. And, of course, that's really not the case. What we experience is a byproduct of our visual system, the neurons in our brain, and what those neurons are representing and constructing for us. And when you probe this, you discover that there are these tremendous disconnects between what you see and experience and what's actually out there.
Caplovitz adds, our scope is limited because we are not physically capable of seeing everything there is to be seen. We can’t see radio waves, radiation, or infrared light, for example, and those inabilities color our perception.
“At one point, I saw pictures of what the world looks like to bees,” Caplovitz explains, giving an example of a living being with far superior visual senses. “Bees see different spectra of light and see patterns and colors on flowers that are very, very different from what we're experiencing.” (Do yourself a favor and Google “what the world looks like to bees” to get a glimpse of the vast spectra our eyes miss.)
But don’t feel sad just because we mere humans don’t posesses the super-power of infrared light. Caplovitz insists our limited perspective is also what makes us distinctly human. He surmises that people are captivated by illusions because “they reveal some of our humanity. That, you know, we're not robots, we're not video cameras. We're biological creatures that have these subjective experiences that are arising through some of the mysteries of neuroscience.”
While being mysterious does sound better than being inept, it also seems like there's a fine line between being intrigued and disturbed by illusions once you realize your perspective is so subjective. This idea of our individual subjective reality goes far beyond fun internet illusions.
“I think it can be disturbing. And it's something our society is grappling with in terms of eyewitness testimony. We're raised with this mantra, ‘seeing is believing,’ right? … We have this expression in English, ‘I saw it with my own two eyes!’ And it is disturbing that we can be deceived. That we can see something that's not there, or not see something that is there. These are issues that, as a country, we're dealing with.”
To clarify that point, Caplovitz references the case of Amadou Diallo, the young New York man who was fatally shot by police while trying to enter his apartment in 1999. Though no weapons were later found on Diallo, the four police officers who collectively fired 41 shots claimed they saw him reach for a firearm. “But it raises the question,” Caplovitz says, “Did they see a gun? Maybe they did. And so these are things that I think to some degree can be disturbing because illusions happen so that we maybe shouldn't be believing. If I can't believe what I'm seeing what can I believe?”
From a theoretical vantage point, we can live somewhat comfortably in this disconnect. But when it comes to putting our lives in the hands of mercurial human beings with unreliable perceptions, mere theory becomes terrifyingly real. In the case of Diallo, none of the four cops who shot him were found guilty. So this also brings up a point of responsibility. Shouldn’t we still be held accountable for our actions whether what we see is actually there or not?
“I will say this,” Caplovitz interjects, “We are pretty good at seeing.” While there are disconnects, he says, “In general, what we see is accurate enough that it doesn't cause problems.” As in, we don’t mistakenly walk off cliffs all the time or regularly fall into snake pits. And with over seven billion people on the planet, there should be enough witnesses to verify what the majority of us see.”
Having given up all hope of ever trusting my senses again, I ask Caplovitz something that’s been churning in my head since we got on the phone: Is reality just something we all agree on? Perhaps, and it may come down to one possibly black and blue, or gold and white, dress.
“That damn blue-black-white-gold-something dress,” says Caplovitz, “Some people see it one way, some people see it the other way.” Indeed, those who saw it as black and blue defended their perspective as fiercely as those who saw it in white and gold. On Twitter, the debate was raging toward a virtual Civil War. “That caught our community really by surprise,” says Caplovitz, “That there were these profoundly different individual differences in how lighting and color is processed by the brain.”
That instance, while silly, might have been the most powerful example of diverging individual interpretations shaking the bedrock of our physical reality. And to think you might not have had this cultural moment decades ago, before the advent of the internet made it possible to bring to light inconsistencies that throw everything into question with small sleights of mind every day.
So, what color did Caplovitz see? “I'm not going to say,” he says tersly. “As far as I'm concerned it should go up in flames. I see it as an ugly dress.”