The Art of Illusion
Illusions are fun. The best illusionists pass into history with mythological status. If I write the name Houdini, I don't have to say anything more. Your mind will fill in a rich picture of death defying illusions and escapes that seemed beyond what a human being should be able to accomplish.
The greatest illusion of all time, though, is one we never see. It is so good, so pervasive and so believable that it is all but undetectable. It is the illusion that goes on between your own ears. The illusion that you see the world as it is. You don't. You never have.
As a very simple example, click on the 'Start' button, below. You will see a uniform gray ring drop into place in the center of the split gray background. The start button will be replaced by three small views of the ring in different positions. Notice, in the opening state, how the ring is clearly one shade of gray. Now, click on the view to the left or the right. What do you see?
Each split side of the ring appears to become a different shade of gray. They are still the same, but your mind will see them as different. Try all you like, you will not be able to convince your mind that the two rings are still the same shade of gray. And yet, they really are. The vertical split presents the best illusion. The two halves of the ring are almost touching, yet the difference between them seems so great.
Interesting, isn't it? Even when you know the truth, you can't convince your mind to present it to you truthfully.
Here is another interesting illusion. Click 'Start' and six identical gray diamonds will slide into place, followed by seven identical discs, quartered into four different shades. Despite the fact that the only thing that has been drawn are those six gray diamonds and seven discs, you'll notice that your mind tells you there is something more—a hazy white diamond on the left.
Now, for a little fun. Click on the 'Spin' button and watch what happens. The moment the discs begin to spin, the hazy white phantom diamond disappears, only to reappear on the right side when the discs have finished their rotation. There is no trickery going on here beyond the trickery between your ears. You see things that aren't there and, try as you might, can't help but see them. You can, with a little practice, observe the process of the hazy diamond appearing, though. Give it a try.
What is going on, here? Do these illusions show faults in your visual system? Not at all. If anything, they show it's sophistication and power. Your eyes don't work just like little cameras, recording the amount of light bouncing off of (or being emitted by, in the case of your computer screen) objects. You look out in the world and interpret what you see. You literally create the picture of the world in your mind.
When you think about it, this is the only useful way for your mind to deal with visual data. If you did nothing but read color and luminance (brightness) values, you'd become hopelessly confused when the light struck certain objects in certain ways. For example, you depend on differences in luminance to figure out the contour of objects like stairs. If all you did was take a reading of the light without making assumptions and interpreting it as a whole, what would happen when a shadow was cast across the staircase?
You mind interprets more than just shades of gray when you look at the world. It makes assumptions and builds a picture based on movement, too. Take the dots, below. You will either see them apparently moving left/right or up/down. Whichever way it is, you'll probably find you have a very difficult time changing the orientation in your mind. Mostly people feel stuck with whichever way their brain initially sees the "movement." It can be done, though. Just click on the button for the direction you want to switch to and watch the moving dot.
Now, try a little experiment. See if you can train your mind to alter the apparent movement at will. The trick is this: anticipation.
Anticipation plays a key role in all of the illusions your mind creates. This illusion gives you an opportunity to play with it and see how it can be used to drive the illusion in different directions. In order to change the direction of apparent movement of the dots, focus on one of the dots, then shift your attention to the spot that you would like it to move to, either horizontally or vertically. For instance, if you see the dots apparently moving left/right, focus on the upper right corner. When a dot appears there, move your eyes down to the lower left corner. Suddenly, the movement of the dots seems to change orientation.
With a little practice, you can continually anticipate the apparent motion so that the illusion seems to be moving 360° clockwise or counterclockwise. Just keep moving your eyes to the next corner around the imaginary box the dots inhabit. As a dot appears in the corner you are looking at, look to the next dot around. Voila! The dots no longer move just up or down, they spin around in a circle!
Notice that you have changed nothing about the illusion itself. In the animation, there is nothing but dots turning on and off in a certain order. Everything about the apparent movement of the dots is made up by your brain.
Your mind likes to group things together, too. For example, you will see apparent motion in the dots, below. This time, however, there is really only one way to interpret the motion--as left and right. What about the dot next to the square in the middle? That one looks like it is hiding underneath the square as it move in tandem with the other dots, doesn't it?
Now, click the 'Hide' button to hide all the dots but the one in the center. Does it still look like it is moving under the square? Nothing has changed with the center dot. It is doing exactly what it did from the beginning, yet without the other dots for reference, you'd really have to stretch your imagination to see it moving under the square. With the other dots, however, it goes right back to its little game of hide-and-seek.
Before we get to my favorite optical illusion of all, let's think for a moment about what all of this might mean. There is a lot going on here beyond tricks of light and apparent movement. This interpretive ability of your brain extends beyond your visual system. The beauty of optical illusions is that they give you the chance to watch your brain in action—the very same action your brain takes, unobserved, every waking moment.
It is literally impossible to see the world as it is through casual observation. As you've seen through these illusions, you brain makes assumptions based on the data it has available to it to put together a picture that makes sense given your brain's existing programming. The first illusion shows how your brain makes certain assumptions about the shade of an object based on contrast. When the circle is whole, the brain interprets the ring as one object. Split them and the half circle that is on a darker background looks lighter.
The secret of the second illusion is the pattern of dark and light in the quartered discs. Two opposing quarters are the same shade of gray. The other two are dark and light. You brain recognizes this pattern, even if you didn't notice it consciously, and makes the assumption that the dark and light quarters are actually the same shade of gray, just like the other quarters. For that shading scheme to make sense, the lighter quarter must be covered by a translucent diamond that only makes it appear to be lighter in color. Your brain makes up the translucent diamond out of whole cloth. It isn't there, but the picture doesn't quite make sense (given your brain's assumptions) without it.
What you are seeing is your brain making up lies in order to maintain its assumptions about the world. It does this all the time. As you read the news or listen to a story, you don't read or listen to the actual facts and judge them on their own merits. Your mind, without your knowledge, is cooking what you hear or read to fit in with a preconceived model of reality.
Your mind's model of the world, for instance, probably includes the assumption that everyone is basically the same deep down inside. That assumption has been pounded into your brain from the time you were an infant. When you watch the actions of others, your interpretation of their actions is against the background of this fundamental assumption.
Try a little experiment, much like the one you tried with the dots, above. Think of the actions the U.S. is taking in the world right now. The background you've been given to view these actions is one of democracy, justice, freedom and the fight against evil terrorists. That background will lead you to view these actions in a certain way, no matter what you think of the leaders who are taking these actions. If you accept the validity of that background, you might argue that we have misstepped in our efforts to spread democracy, justice, freedom and safety from terror, but that the basic principle behind what we are doing is correct.
Now, just for the sake of having fun with illusions, imagine for a moment that everyone isn't really the same inside. Imagine that some people are missing a critical element in their makeup—something that we consider fundamental to being human. Imagine they lack a conscience. They are genetically incapable of feeling anything for other people than a hunger for power over them. Take it a step further. Imagine that the people telling you we are spreading democracy, justice and freedom while fighting a war on terror are afflicted with this lack of conscience.
How does you view of U.S. actions change?
Right this moment, there is a group of men and women in the most powerful political positions on the planet who are so afflicted. In psychological terms, they are psychopaths. Already, if you take the time to observe your brain working again, you might see that the very word "psychopths" conjured an image in your mind that will set the stage for how you will perceive everything else you read, here. Perhaps that picture was of a Hannibal Lecter type of character, or a Jeffery Dahmer. Whatever it is, take a moment to observe it and realize that this is nothing more than a programmed response. Your thoughts around the word "psychopath" were molded by your training and assumptions before you even realized you were having them, just like your perceptions of the shades of gray were altered before they even bubble up into conscious awareness.
A psychopath is a person who is genetically conscienceless. They have no feelings for other people beyond what might be described as hunger. They hunger for power over others. For some, this plays out as wielding the ultimate power of life and death. For most, it means wielding power over perception and the ability to manipulate others to get as much as they can from them.
Having no conscience, psychopaths can lie with impunity. The typcial methods for detecting lies will not work with them. All of those methods depend on detecting the unconscious physical "symptoms" of a lie, none of which manifest with a psychopath. Brain scans of the brains of psychopaths have shown that they do not react emotionally to things that normal people cannot help but react to. Different parts of a normal brain are activated when saying the words "death" and "rose," for example. Not so in a psychopathic brain.
This lack of emotional reaction doesn't come across as cold, like you might think. One of the skills a psychopath learns early in life is how to mimic the emotions of normal people. Since they don't have emotional triggers of their own, they can pick and choose which faux emotions they will display at any time in order to achieve whatever effect they desire. If they want to illicit pity from someone with a soft heart, they will put on a convincing act of crying. If they want to win the heart of someone fun-loving, they might have a smile on their face and a ready joke no matter what the circumstance.
Normal people, though, are largely emotionally driven. When our brains are putting together the picture of the world that makes sense from the data given, they will tend to focus on the parts of the picture that will have to do with affecting us emotionally. If something looks like it would stir an unpleasant emotion, it will be seen as dark and negative. If it looks like it might stir pleasant emotions, it will appear light. Our emotions are, to a large extent, the background against which we judge the various levels of gray in the world.
The psychopath's job, then, comes down largely to manipulating the contrast and apparent movement in the picture you are presented of the world. They might say words, like national security, war on terror and mission accomplished. These words have no bearing on reality, but they aren't intended to convey reality. They are intended to lead you to see things they way the psychopath wants you to see them. They are part of a linguistic illusion in which dark appears light and phantoms appear to fill in the gaps in the picture you are presented.
One example of such a phantom, not unlike the phantom hazy diamond above, is the so-called suicide bomber. No doubt, some of these have lived in the past, though logically there is not a single suicide bomber alive today. Are there as many as reported, though? Probably not. There are also reports of British agents posing as suicide bombers and people being set up as unwitting suicide bombers, only to discover the explosive planted in the trunk of their car before they went off. These stories do not fit the official story about the state of the Middle East, so they are ignored by the mainstream news media in the U.S. If they do happen to filter through to some Americans, they are dismissed. The illusion is too strong. Contradictory evidence like this seems to fly in the face of common sense. We can see for ourselves what is going on in the world.
Except, as we've already seen, we can't.
Perhaps you aren't convinced of that yet, though. Maybe you think that you really do see the world as it is and are not subject to the illusions that are born of your programming and assumptions. Here is another illusion that will show you just how dramatically wrong your brain's interpretation of the world can be..
What's the big deal, you ask? The big deal is that the squares marked A and B are exactly the same shade of gray!
The first time I saw this illusion, I just passed it by. Clearly the explanation was wrong. Squares A and B are absolutely not the same shade of gray...except they are. To convince you, I've added a little aid to this copy of the illusion. As you move your mouse over the squares on the grid, you will notice that they highlight as a light yellow. Click and the highlighted square will either disappear or reappear. Eliminate squares of the checkerboard until the squares around A and B are masked. See for yourself, they really are the same shade of gray.
Your mind cannot see the A and B squares by themselves as long as there are squares connecting them. It interprets the picture presented as a whole, making assumptions and interpretting the data to create a whole picture that makes sense to it that is in line with those assumptions.
The same thing happens with everything you observe. Between the squares of various points of interest in the world, you have been shown connecting squares carefully designed to lead you to interpret what you see in a very specific way. As with the above illusion, that interpretation comes without any effort on your part. It happens before you are even aware of having thoughts. You see a world, as clear as the nose on your face, that looks a certain way...and yet it isn't that way at all.
You have been lead to believe that Arab highjackers flew planes into buildings on 9/11. You have been lead to believe that Palestinians are nothing but a crazed bunch of suicide bombers who deserve to be kept locked up in Israeli prisons and behind walls guarded by armed men. You have been lead to believe that the U.S. had a right to invade Iraq and that it will have a right to invade Iran, too.
None of this is how it really is.
What you see are illusions created by controlled contrast between events, statements, conditioning and allegedly unbiased reporting. To get to the truth, you must dig. Of course, digging for yourself into the truth of matters is a lot of work. You're busy. You don't have time.
But, if you don't dig, you don't have a life, either. The world in changing rapidly, in ways you probably can't even comprehend at this moment. You have been lied to, manipulated and programmed to see the world in a specific way. This is not a way that is of benefit to you. The purpose of it all is to keep you quiet and docile until the time comes for the hammer to fall and you to be brushed aside like dust on the floor.
The question is this: do you wake up and do the work to see the illusion, or do you blithely work and entertain yourself into oblivion? The choice is yours and will remain yours until the moment the choice can no longer be made. Exactly when that will happen, no one can say.