Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality

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Why do we see this image of the Penrose Stairs as being impossible? Optical illusions, such as this one, and magic tricks function because of at least two structures, perhaps we should call them limitations, related to our perception of reality, namely bodily structures (our sensory system) and conceptual structures )the frameworks around which we organize those perceptions). Considering these limitations becomes important not only for our perception of illusions but also for the work of observation and description that informs much scholarship and public discourse.

These reflections came out of watching David Blaine perform his ice pick trick in a conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson with Pharrell Williams and Scott Vener in their OtherTone Studio. Continue reading “Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality”

Seeing Is Believing, Or Is It?

Prisma-lightSpectrum-goetheWith my grandparents living in Missouri, the “Show Me State” motto was always familiar to me as a child. The notion from that motto that seeing the world is how you know the world became more complicated when I met my wife. She sees the world differently from me, noticing differences in colors that look the same to me, differences that I have neither perception of nor words to describe. If seeing is believing, whose vision (perception) should I believe?

The issue of perception of color has come into the foreground after the sensation that was Dressgate. In one segment of a Radiolab podcast on color from several years ago (embedded below) that suddenly became popular, they compared the number of different color perceiving cones in the eyes of different animals (beginning about 9:30 in the podcast). Dogs have two, humans three, butterflies five, and mantis shrimp top the list with sixteen. Continue reading “Seeing Is Believing, Or Is It?”

It’s All Ordinary

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Picture 7So opens Roland Barthes’ little essay — well known to some, of course — in his collection, Mythologies (read the full essay here). Judging by a recent news story, it turns out that he was right: that the ordinary is continually dressed up as extraordinary and that, at every turn, we make our worlds meaningful by crafting History into Necessity, as he famously phrases it. For the headline of the story, posted here, reads:

Picture 8And voila, Einstein’s brain is, in the Barthean sense, a myth. Continue reading “It’s All Ordinary”