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Wrong by Design

Our brains evolved to mislead us, fooling us into seeing what might be rather than what truly is.

By Nick Zautra, Andrew Moseman, and Beau Lotto
Apr 27, 2010 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:57 AM


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Neuroscientists usually explain color illusions in mechanistic terms: They arise because of the way cells in the retina and the brain respond to certain wavelengths of light. Those explanations miss the larger point, says Beau Lotto, a reader in trans­disciplinary brain research at University College London. We misperceive colors and shapes because our visual sense has been molded by evolutionary history. Lotto’s lab, which fuses art and neuroscience, has created dozens of optical illusions to study the systematic goofs that evolution has built into our minds. He proposes that visual glitches are the result of a brain that is beautifully calibrated to detect biologically relevant information—responding effectively to motion (which might indicate a predator on the run) while messing up on simplecolor matching, which generally has little relevance to survival.

BLUE BLUFF The blue dot on the top of the cube and the one on the darker side are exactly the same hue, reflecting light with identical intensity, or luminance. But because your visual system interprets the two-dimensional drawing as three-dimensional reality, you see the right side “in shade” and so perceive the right-side dot as bright, even glowing. In everyday life this perceptual bias is useful; it is what normally allows you to understand how distant objects occupy space.

SHADY SITUATION The top and bottom planes of this shape seem to be distinct, separated by a thin band of shadow. In reality, both are the same absolute color. Your brain perceives the gradients where the tiles meet as curves, and you surmise that light hits the large, flat surface of the top tile and fades to shadow at its curved bottom edge; for the bottom tile, the opposite holds. Automatically your mind fits the drawing to a physical object that makes sense based on your experience, altering your visual perception to match expectations.

TURNING THE TABLES At first glance, the green table appears longer and thinner than the red table, which looks to be more or less square. Yet the two actually have the same length and width, if the red table were rotated one quarter turn. They seem so different because the angle at the lower left corner of the green table makes it appear more “vertical,” as though its back edge is receding into the distance. In response, our brains alter the real information to fit what we expect to see: a three-dimensional scene in which perspective is paramount.

CUBIST ART The top surface of the cube on the left seems to be sprinkled with blue tiles, and the cube on the right with yellow tiles. Surprise: Both sets of tiles are gray. The image on the right appears to be bathed in short-wavelength blue light, so our vision compensates by perceiving gray, a neutral shade, as longer-wavelength yellow. The opposite holds true on the left. “The point is, we want to see the relationships between things if we are to survive,” Lotto says. “The problem is that we can’t see objects or conditions of the world directly, except through the light that falls on the eye—which is not the same thing as the objects in the world that reflect that light. That is the fundamental challenge the brain evolved to solve.”

GOING GREEN The center square of the disk on the left (marked with a dot) appears green, while the center square of the disk on the right appears orange. The two are identical in hue. The fact that we can perceive colors consistently at all is astonishing, considering that our brains must take into account not only the color reflected from the object but also the color of the illumination and the context. Each parameter influences the frequency of the light as it reaches the eye, yet we still see blue as blue whether we’re in brilliant sunshine, under fluorescent light, or looking through water. We are capable of distinguishing roughly 1 million colors.

Beau Lotto theorizes that the reason humans are vulnerable to optical illusions is that we are not really responding to the physical properties of the object we are looking at. Rather, we “see” things based on what other things similar to the current image have typically turned out to be in the past. The implication: The visual cortex is evolutionarily adapted to the sensory information it receives, not to the world beyond. Such forced interpretations allow us to recognize important objects (fruit in a tree, a tiger in the grass) quickly, but at the cost of total accuracy. Basically, we do not see the world the way it really is because our brains will not let us.

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