Can you trust what you see?
Do you read using mostly the tops or the bottoms of the letters?
In this section I want to show you how easy it is for our perceptions to be “tricked.” We humans have five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Each sense can be “tricked.” Due to the restraints of this book, I will mainly show illusions having to do with sight (it’s really hard to trick the other senses in print).
Some of the illusions I will present will only work the first time. After you have experienced them they will never trick you again. Your mind will have learned more about your world, and you will be able to use this knowledge in the future. One time illusions are still fun. You can show them off to friends.
Some of the illusions that I will present will trick your brain every time. Even though you know the trick, you will have to figure it out every time. Chalk it up to being human, or at least an animal. Even though you know that you are being tricked you will not be able to override your perceptions. In fact, this is why I have written this section. It is important to know that you can be easily tricked even when you know there is a trick being presented. In this section you are learning how to control and understand your perceptions. Here we look at how our perceptions get tricked. I am using visual perceptions just to prove a point about perceptions in general.
Before we get started looking at vision, let me explain two tactile experiments you can try at home.
What you need are three different size empty food cans, uncooked rice, and a kitchen scale. In the recycling container I found an 8 (fluid) ounce can, a 16-ounce can, and a 28-ounce can. (The remnants of some awesome slow cooked chili.) Wash and dry each can and watch for sharp edges. Fill each can with rice so that each can, along with its rice, weighs the same; 10 ounces for example. Cover each can’s opening with aluminum foil.
Ask someone to pick up each can and tell you which one is the heaviest, which one is the lightest. People tend to answer that the small can weighs the least and the large can weighs the most. Even when you tell them that each can weighs the same, they will argue. Why? This illusion is due to our expectations. We expect the small can to weigh less and the large can to weigh more. We are prepared for the weight we expect. We judge the weight through our expectations giving us our belief of its actual weight.
In my office I have a realistic looking granite rock made out of plastic. It weighs almost nothing in comparison to what a real fist sized granite rock should weigh. When people pick it up the first time they usually end up lifting it so high that they almost hit themselves in the face with the back of their own hand. Some even drop it because their perceptions are so confused.
For this experiment you will need three bowls of water. One bowl filled with hot water, the second filled with cold water, and the third filled with room temperature water. Place the room temperature bowl in the middle. (You may wish to go to the bathroom before you do this experiment.)
Place a hand in each of the outside bowls. Let each hand get used to the hot or cold water. This usually takes about one minute. Simultaneously, place your hands in the room temperature water. Voila! You have tricked your own perceptions. Your brain gives you two different beliefs about the room temperature water, even though your brain knows the water temperature is neither hot nor cold. Don’t worry about tricking your own perceptions. You do it all the time. We all do.
Visual perception is the process of making sense of the reception of electromagnetic energy taken in by your eyes. Simply put, your eyes receive light waves the same way your radio receives radio waves or your television receives a television signal through a cable or from the antenna on the roof.
In the following illustrations you will see that your perceptions can be easily confused. Are the lines between the “> <” symbols the same, or are they different lengths?
As you can guess, line #1 and line #2 are the same length. But they do not seem to be the same length. The angle and direction of the < messes with our ability to determine the length. In the following illusions the lengths are the same, but the angles have been changed.
Lines #1-6 are the same size, but they are not perceived to be the same size.
Even things you are used to seeing can be difficult to perceive if shown to you in an unusual manner:
Once you know what the above is, you will probably not be fooled by this same illusion for a long time, if ever. These are the numbers one through seven hidden by a process called symmetrical camouflage (Cover the first half of each symbol to see it easier).
In the next illusion the five balls look misaligned. If you check you will find the balls are indeed aligned. Our eyes combine the jittery effect of the lines to make the balls seem out of alignment.
Our eyes can be tricked by misalignments and “jittery” art. The next illusion is called Jittered squares:
The randomly placed squares look tilted, but they are not. Feel free to use a straight edge to prove to yourself that the above squares are really aligned (this illusion is so powerful that most people have to prove it to themselves).
Illusions are what make movies work. Most people don’t spend time thinking about it, but movies don’t really move. We just perceive that they do.
When you watch a movie you are seeing a series of static images run back to back at a high speed. This gives the perception of motion through the process called “persistence of movement.” Brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere demonstrated the first movie in 1895 in Paris. Their demonstration showed a jockey riding a horse. Now we have British kids riding on brooms. Isn’t technology wonderful?
Let’s take a moment to mess with your tongue. The following is supposed to be the hardest tongue twister in the English language.
Say it ten times fast. Ask friends to do the same so you can enjoy laughing at them.
In the next visual illusion you need to bring the image towards yourself. As you go cross-eyed, the illusion occurs.
Can you get the big fish to eat the small fish?
What do you see?
This ambiguous drawing was developed by an American psychologist named Joseph Jastrow at the start of the 1900’s. Is it a rabbit or a duck? This is an example of a reversible figure that is influenced by the direction of our focus. If we focus on the left, we tend to see a duck’s beak. If we focus on the right, we tend to see a bunny. This figure has been shown to illustrate that the viewer’s expectations are important. One study showed that on Easter Sunday children tend to see a rabbit. However during October children tend to see a duck or bird. 
In the next figure we see either an Eskimo looking into a cave or the silhouette of a proud Indian face (lots of little boys report seeing a boy peeing on a wall).
Our perceptions can be primed to see something that is not really there. This can be very important in criminal cases that rely on witness testimony to determine guilt or innocence. With the advances in genetic evaluation of criminal evidence we have learned that eyewitness testimony has serious drawbacks. Of the first 32 death penalty cases that were overturned by genetic testing, 28 of them had been convicted on the eyewitness testimony of credible witnesses.
Let’s try a little priming illusion just for fun. Ask a friend to quickly repeat the word “white” ten times. When they are done, ask your test subjects, “What does a cow drink?” Don’t hesitate with your question. Most people answer “milk.” But, we know cows drink water! We primed the subject with his knowledge about cows. Most people think of “cows” and “milk” as synonymous.
This section was fun, but I hope I was able to prove to you that your perceptions are personal and prone to inaccuracies. This should lead you to question your own beliefs.
Belief is often confused with fact. Just because you really believe something doesn’t make it a fact. A fact is just that—factual. What I mean by this is that a thought that can withstand the test of repeated scrutiny is more likely to be a fact. If a thought is not questioned it is a belief, but not necessarily a fact.
So? You may be asking yourself, is this a big deal? Unfortunately, this is a big deal. If we hold onto beliefs that we do not scrutinize we are prone to develop inaccurate personal filters.
As we grow and mature we develop filters that we strain our thoughts through. When I was fifteen I would have comfortably told you that I did not like spaghetti. I was sure of it. But when I tried “real” spaghetti, spaghetti with flavor, I instantly changed my belief. My present belief is: I like home made Italian style spaghetti; I dislike canned spaghetti I got from the school cafeteria every Wednesday. If my filter (I hate spaghetti) was rigid I would not have tried real spaghetti. I wouldn’t have know what I was missing out on.
Rigid filters are not challenged. This can be good or bad. I have a rigid belief that I really dislike being poked in the eye. I’m comfortable with this belief. But I need to control this rigid belief if I need eye surgery. I need to allow the surgeon to poke me in the eye for my own benefit. If we do not keep track of our beliefs and how they affect us we are being controlled by them.
Mr. Sachs was a forty-four year old businessman. He seemed physically fit. He prided himself on working hard and playing hard. During a routine insurance medical exam, Mr. Sachs was furious when his doctor wanted to give him further tests. He threw a fit and refused to have the tests that were recommended. “There is nothing wrong with my heart, I’m as fit as a horse.”
Two weeks later, Mr. Sachs was taken to the hospital after complaining of chest pains. By the time he got to the hospital he was feeling better and refused treatment. He told them that he was just having heartburn and needed to get home to bed. He had a big meeting in the morning and couldn’t miss it. He did agree to come in for tests the following day.
Mrs. Sachs made the appointment for her husband and forced him to go. When Mr. Sachs entered the cardiac test area he was breathing heavily and sweating profusely. He proudly told the cardiac specialist, “I don’t need any tests, I’m as healthy as a horse. I just ran up and down the stairs for fifteen minutes.” Mr. Sachs had done just that. To prove to his wife that she was over reacting, he had run up and down the hospital stairs.
When I met Mr. Sachs he was weak and listless. “I couldn’t believe it,” he whispered. “My doctor was right. I had a heart attack as they were putting on the monitoring wires. I think I would have died if I wasn’t already in the hospital.” Mr. Sachs damaged his heart severely. His rigid belief (“I’m as healthy as a horse”) cost him seventy percent of his heart muscle and almost killed him.
You need to know how your filters influence you. Only by knowing this will you be able to use your learned filters correctly. You need to question your self-talk. It seems to be human nature that we do not notice our own shortcomings. It is difficult to be self-objective.