Questioning Perception with Illusions

Can you spot the difference between the two pictures in the video above? Most of the packed audience at the “The Neuroscience of Illusion” event at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan couldn’t. What if we told you to look for something the men couldn’t leave without? Even with that clue, many attendees were still stumped. One women continued to struggle even when told to look for the man without a hat. If you’re like her and still confused, the engine of the plane is only present in one picture!

What makes it so hard to see what’s right in front of us? The audience’s response to the video illustrates that our field of vision, called the “attention spotlight,” is very narrow, said Apollo Robbins, speaker at the event. Called “The Gentleman Thief,” Robbins is a master pickpocket and illusionist who is said to have picked the pockets of more than 250,000 men and women. When we are focused on something intently, we may miss other important details. Pickpockets manipulate this shortcoming to divert attention and steal, he said.

Husband and wife duo Stephen Macknik, Ph.D., and Susana Martinez-Conde, Ph.D., who specialize in the neuroscience of magic, were on hand to speak about the science behind illusions. They showed a selection of illusions from the Best Illusion of the Year Contest, which is moderated by Macknik. To illustrate the narrow field of vision demonstrated by the airplane images and Robbin’s pickpocketing techniques, they showed the Coffer Illusion, a 2006 finalist in the competition.

While most people see door panels, the illusion is actually made up of 16 circles. Though we try to focus our attention, we aren’t necessarily getting an accurate picture. Illusions “use your own process of attention against you,” said Macknik. But there’s more – our inability to see the circles may also be due to another visual shortcoming, blind spots, said Martinez-Conde, recipient of the 2014 SfN Educator Award, sponsored by the Dana Foundation. We don’t notice them because the brain is constantly filling in gaps in visual information.

Perhaps the most famous illusion discussed at the event was “the dress,” a picture of a dress that became an internet phenomenon. While some people saw the dress as black and blue, others saw it as white and gold. Light either comes as yellow light from the sun or blue light from the sky, said Martinez-Conde. Your brain assumes it to be one or the other, and that colors the dress. Differences in brain processing allow two people to look at the same image with very different responses. Blind spots, light, and previous experiences can all shape what we see, she said.

While illusions are fun, what do they tell us about how we see the world around us? It is important to recognize the shortcomings in our perception. For example, people should not text and drive because our brains are not equipped to pay attention to both simultaneously. Witness testimonies in court may be distorted or incorrect, so more concrete evidence may be needed for convictions, the panelists said. Despite the complexity and power of our brains, they are still imperfect.

“We try to make sense of stuff when reality is fundamentally meaningless,” said Martinez-Conde.

– Ali Chunovic

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