Seeing is deceiving. Thus a familiar epigram may be challenged in order to indicate the trend of this book which aims to treat certain phases of optical illusions. In general, we do not see things as they are or as they are related to each other; that is, the intellect does not correctly interpret the deliverances of the visual sense, although sometimes the optical mechanism of the eyes is directly responsible for the optical illusion. In other words, none of our conceptions and perceptions are quite adequate, but fortunately most of them are satisfactory for practical purposes. Only a part of what is perceived comes through the senses from the object; the remainder always comes from within. In fact, it is the visual sense or the intellect which is responsible for optical illusions of the various types to be discussed in the following chapters. Our past experiences, associations, desires, demands, imaginings, and other more or less obscure influences create optical illusions.
An optical illusion does not generally exist physically but it is difficult in some cases to explain the cause. Certainly there are many cases of errors of judgment. A mistaken estimate of the distance of a mountain is due to an error of judgment but the perception of a piece of white paper as pink on a green background is an error of sense. It is realized that the foregoing comparison leads directly to one of the most controversial questions in psychology, but there is no intention on the author's part to cling dogmatically to the opinions expressed. In fact, discussions of the psychological judgment involved in the presentations of the visual sense are not introduced with the hope of stating the final word but to give the reader an idea of the inner process of perception. The final word will be left to the psychologists but it appears possible that it may never be formulated.
Generally speaking, a tree will appear longer when it is standing than when it is lying on the ground. Lines, areas, and masses are not perceived in their actual physical relations. The appearance of a colored object varies considerably with its environment. The sky is not perceived as infinite space nor as a hemispherical dome, but as a flattened vault. The moon apparently diminishes in size as it rises toward the zenith. A bright object appears larger than a dark object of the same physical dimensions. Flat areas may appear to have a third dimension of depth. And so on.
Optical illusions are so numerous and varied that they have long challenged the interest of the scientist. They may be so useful or even so disastrous that they have been utilized or counteracted by the skilled artist or artisan. The architect and painter have used or avoided them. The stage artist employs them to carry the audience in its imagination to other environments or to far countries. The magician has employed them in his entertainments and the camoufleur used them to advantage in the practice of deception during the recent war. They are vastly entertaining, useful, deceiving, or disastrous, depending upon the viewpoint.
Incidentally, a few so-called optical illusions will be discussed which are not due strictly to errors of the visual sense or of the intellect. Examples of these are the mirage and certain optical effects employed by the magician. In such cases neither the visual sense nor the intellect errs. In the case of the mirage rays of light coming from the object to the eye are bent from their usual straight-line course and the object appears to be where it really is not. However, with these few exceptions, which are introduced for their specific interest and for the emphasis they give to the "true" optical illusion, it will be understood that optical illusions in general as hereinafter discussed will mean those due to the visual mechanism or to errors of judgment or intellect. For the sake of brevity we might say that they are those due to errors of visual perception. Furthermore, only those of a "static" type will be considered; that is, the vast complexities due to motion are not of interest from the view point of the aims of this book.
There are two well-known types of misleading perceptions, namely optical illusions and hallucinations. If, for example, two lines appear of equal length and are not, the error in judgment is responsible for what is termed an "optical illusion." If the perceptual consciousness of an object appears although the object is not present, the result is termed an "hallucination" For example, if something is seen which does not exist, the essential factors are supplied by the imagination. Shadows are often wrought by the imagination into animals and even human beings bent upon evil purpose. Ghosts are created in this manner. Hallucinations depend largely upon the recency, frequency, and vividness of past experience. A consideration of this type of misleading perception does not advance the aims of this book and therefore will be omitted.
The connection between the material and mental in vision is incomprehensible and apparently must ever remain so. Objects emit or reflect light and the optical mechanism known as the eye focuses images of the objects upon the retina. Messages are then carried to the brain where certain molecular vibrations take place. The physiologist records certain physical and chemical effects in the muscles, nerves, and brain and behold! there appears consciousness, sensations, thoughts, desires, and volitions. How? and, Why? are questions which may never be answered.
It is dangerous to use the word never, but the ultimate answers to those questions appear to be so re mote that it discourages one from proceeding far over the hazy course which leads toward them. In fact, it does not appreciably further the aims of this book to devote much space to efforts toward explanation. In covering this vast and complex field there are multitudes of facts, many hypotheses, and numerous theories from which to choose. Judgment dictates that of the limited space most of it be given to the presentation of representative facts. This is the reasoning which led to the formulation of the outline of chapters.
Owing to the vast complex beyond the physical phenomena, physical measurements upon objects and space which have done so much toward building a solid foundation for scientific knowledge fail ultimately to provide an exact mathematical picture of that which is perceived. Much of the author's previous work has been devoted to the physical realities but the ever-present differences between physical and perceptive realities have emphasized the need for considering the latter as well.
Optical illusions are legion. They greet the careful observer on every hand. They play a prominent part in our appreciation of the physical world. Sometimes they must be avoided, but often they may be put to work in various arts. Their widespread existence and their forcefulness make visual perception the final judge in decoration, in painting, in architecture, in landscaping, in lighting, and in other activities. The ultimate limitation of measurements with physical instruments leaves this responsibility to the intellect. The mental being is impressed with things as perceived, not with things as they are. It is believed that this intellectual or judiciary phase which plays such a part in visual perception will be best brought out by examples of various types of static optical illusions coupled with certain facts pertaining to the eye and to the visual process as a whole.
In simple special cases, it is easy to determine when or how closely a perception is accurate but but in general, agreement among normal persons is necessary owing to the absence of any definite measuring device which will span the gap between the perception and the objective reality. Optical illusions are some times called "errors of sense" and some of them are such, but often they are errors of the intellect. The senses may deliver correctly but error may arise from imagination, inexperience, false assumptions, and in correct associations, and the recency, frequency, and vividness of past experience. The gifts of sight are augmented by the mind with judgments based upon experience with these gifts.
The direct data delivered by the visual sense are light, intensity, color, direction. These may be considered as simple or elemental sensations because they cannot be further simplified or analyzed. At this point it is hoped that no controversy with the psychologist will be provoked. In the space available it appears unfruitful to introduce the many qualifications necessary to satisfy the, as yet uncertain or at least conflicting, definitions and theories underlying the science of psychology. If it is necessary to add darkness to the foregoing group of elemental visual sensations, this will gladly be agreed to.
The perceptions of outline-form and surface-contents perhaps rank next in simplicity; however, they may be analyzed into directions. The perception of these is so direct and so certain that it may be considered to be immediate. A ring of points is apparently very simple and it might be considered a direct sense perception, but it consists of a number of elemental directions. The perception of solid-form is far more complex than outline-form and therefore more liable to error. It is judged partially by binocular vision or perspective and partly by the distribution of light and shade. Colors may help to mold form and even to give depth to flat surfaces. For example, it is well known that some colors are "advancing" and others are "retiring."
Perhaps of still greater complexity are the judgments of size and of distance. Many comparisons enter such judgments. The unconscious acts of the muscles of the eye and various external conditions such as the clearness of the atmosphere play prominent parts in influencing judgment. Upon these are superposed the numerous psycho-physiological phenomena of color, irradiation, etc.
In vision, judgments are quickly made and the process apparently is largely outside of consciousness. Higher and more complex visual judgments pass into still higher and more complex intellectual judgments. All these may appear to be primary, immediate, innate, or instinctive and therefore, certain, but the fruits of studies of the psychology of vision have shown that these visual judgments may be analyzed into simpler elements. Therefore, they are liable to error.