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Optical Illusions; Are They of Scientific Value or Just Ephemeral Entertainment?

January 28, 2009

Kanizsa TriangleWe’ve all had some fun with optical illusions, staring blankly at pictures for 5 minutes until a rabbit turns into a duck, or a Jackson Pollack style painting slowly morphs into a forest scene, or more often than not nothing happens at all and you’ve been gazing dumbly at a set of squiggly lines and splodges for God knows how long.

However do these optical illusions have any other value than brief entertainment? Can they be used to improve people’s perception?

Primarily we have to define which type of optical illusion we are referring to as there are three; literal optical illusions, physiological illusions and cognitive illusions. The latter plays on unconscious inferences and assumptions about the world that are embedded into our minds and therefore can dictate our perception because of what we expect to see.

Physiological illusions are typified by exposure to excessive stimuli such as bright lights or movement. These cause an imbalance in the viewer’s visual channels, resulting in altered observation. Finally, literal optical illusions create images that differ from the actual objects and components that create them.

Physiological illusions such as The Hermann grid, take advantage of the theory that specific stimuli have already established neural channels from the participants early stages of visual processing. It is then the repetitive stimulation of one or two of these paths that causes the physiological disparity that adjusts the inspection and gives the affect of an illusion. Therefore experimenting with these illusions may not improve your optical vision but it will certainly exercise your mental perceptions.

If we apply Gestalt theory to cognitive illusions we can decipher that we as observers, make sense of the world by organizing different stimuli and individual sensory experiences, and put them together into a meaningful whole. Our brains are compelled to perform this amalgamation and this ethos explains such illusions as the Kanizsa triangle which exploits the realms of individual’s depth perception. Frequently, our eyes and mind feel obligated to put what we see together and come to the conclusion we believe we are supposed to. In many 2D images, perspective is often alluded to through certain artistic techniques and mathematical rules, which combine to make the viewer see 3 dimensions present although there are obviously only 2. Again, these optical illusions are excellent for exercising the mind but unfortunately do very little for the voyeur’s visual ability.

Therefore we can conclude that although it is doubtful that gazing longingly at optical illusions will improve your actual vision, they can have a significant affect on the observer’s psychological capacities and consequently their perception. Of course this doesn’t mean you should stare at M.C Escher’s paradoxical illusions such as “Ascending and Descending.” This image depicts an impossible set of stairs, and I wouldn’t advise gawking at it for extended periods of time because it’s quite possible it’ll send you clinically insane.

About the Author:
John McE writes articles on a number of subjects including eye-sight exercises and optical improvement. You can find more of John’s work at Focus Clinics.

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One Response to “Optical Illusions; Are They of Scientific Value or Just Ephemeral Entertainment?”

  1. Nattyb on January 28th, 2009 3:07 pm

    I think they’re for both. Plus, they’re badass.