• The Bigger Deception

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.


    The Bigger Deception by Tina Friar

    Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet. – Arthur C. Clarke

    Perception deception is a sort of visual perception paradox in which we are absolutely certain we know what it is that we are seeing until it is shown to us (in no uncertain terms) that our interpretation of what we have just witnessed is completely wrong.  One of the better known examples of this is the “impossible box” which was designed and built by Jerry Andrus.  In this illusion, it seems that Andrus is inside a pen, but when looked at again more closely after he “magically” walks through the front of the pen, it becomes clear that something strange is afoot.  While some call this magic, there is a much more logical explanation.

    The human mind is constantly taking in and interpreting visual data, and sometimes our minds simply just get perspective wrong.  There are many other fascinating illusions that prove that our minds are very good at playing some pretty good tricks on us.  Some people insist that there must be something magical or even mystical about things that we do not understand.  Noted psychologist Jim Alcock states that

    Our brains are also capable of generating wonderful and fantastic perceptual experiences for which we are rarely prepared. Out-of-body experiences (OBEs), hallucinations, near-death experiences (NDEs), peak experiences….

    When we are not prepared for these types of experiences, we at the very least shrug these things off as tricks or magic, and at the worst assign these occurrences far more meaning than they actually have.  Why are many people inclined to believe that some extraordinary meaning exists for the things we cannot immediately understand or explain?

    “The soft feathered inner image in this illusion looks blurry, out of focus and almost as if it is raised off the page in a 3D sort of way due to the sharp contrast and clear cut lines of the outer image. This tricks your eyes and the circle appears to be vibrating and shaking around when you look at or near the edge of the circle or toward the corners of the square.”

    While illusions and other sorts of seemingly external experiences seem magical to some, they are actually things that occur within our minds, and are often relatively easy to explain.  Most illusions are merely a matter of perspective and perception, or more accurately skewed perspective and misperception.  Many people have no idea how the mind actually perceives objects and have never been educated on how perspective actually works.  Without this knowledge, it is easier to buy into the notion that something magical or mystical is occurring when this is far from the case.

    Explaining how perspective works goes a long way toward explaining many illusions and visual deceptions.  According to one definition, “perspective, in context of vision and visual perception, is the way in which objects appear to the eye based on their spatial attributes; or their dimensions and the position of the eye relative to the objects”.  The keys in this definition logically may be “spatial attributes” and “position of the eye relative to the objects”.  Common sense should dictate that both the way the object one is viewing is positioned and how the viewer themselves are positioned in relation to said object will affect how the viewer’s mind arranges and makes sense of the visual input.  We are not really taught about how this process works.  A fine example of our lack of understanding of perspective is the long running conspiracy theory stating that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax.   The picture below (from the Skeptic’s Dictionary website) demonstrates one of the common arguments those deniers use:  that because there are multiple shadows going in different directions, this must mean that artificial light was used in the scene in the photograph.  This page on the Skeptic’s Dictionary site explains in greater detail how this is not necessarily the case.  Shadows cast different angles depending upon where the observer is standing in relation to both the objects they are viewing and the light source which creates them.  In other words, where both the viewer is and where the object being observed is spatially affects the viewer’s perception of said object.

    The inner workings of perception also lend some clarity as to why our eyes often deceive us and our brains follow suit.  While there are no absolute answers as to how exactly the brain perceives visual stimuli, the it is accurate to say that

    Visual perception is one of the senses, consisting of the ability to detect light and interpret (see) it as the perception known as sight or naked eye vision…..The major problem in visual perception is that what people see is not simply a translation of retinal stimuli (i.e., the image on the retina).

    Because visual perception is  not merely a simple interpretation of what our eyes take in and send to our visual cortex, we can be tricked into seeing things that are not actually there or misunderstanding the things that we do see.

    There are a number of possible reasons why people might take the “easy route” and assume that things which are not easily explained are merely trickery or mystical or even some form of true magic.  One explanation that may give us some insight into this behavior is simply that critical thinking is not a skill which comes naturally to us.  These skills take practice and work to develop.  It is much easier to blindly accept something as fact than to take the time and make the effort to critically examine the facts or to even seek out those facts in the first place.  In his article The Belief Engine, Jim Alcock says it well when he says “The true critical thinker accepts what few people ever accept — that one cannot routinely trust perceptions and memories.”

    There is no shortage of ways in which our minds can play tricks on us.  However, the bigger deception may very well be the more serious trickery which we commit toward ourselves.  By blindly believing or fabricating reasons for the phenomena we do not understand in our world instead of taking the time to learn about how our minds actually work, we  not only do a disservice to ourselves and our fellow man, but we commit one of the biggest deceptions of all.

    Category: PsychologySkepticismTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com
    • Evelyn Stratmoen

      Has there been any experimentation done in regards to misperception with other sensory forms? I am thinking in regards to the other 4 (smell, taste, touch, sound)? It would be interesting to see if misperception occurs just as frequently with the other sensory forms, or less.

    • intuitiveacuity

      This perception detection stuff is really cool. If one looks into some of the work by a Dr. Ramachandran on phantom limb syndrome is incredibly interesting, and uses some of the work from the perception deception literature to help individuals who experience pain from limbs they no longer have.

    • RankingEffects

      In the past, without any scientific understanding of perception, it is easy to see how illusions and visual deceptions could materialize into grand stories shared amongst a culture. I would think that more than likely, there are various accounts in religious texts that could be readily explained by these means.

    • CathlinaSmith

      Interesting article. Since perception is subjective, I am always curious to know if what I am seeing is really what someone else is seeing. Optical illusions are particularly fascinating to me because I only use one eye and most of the time can’t see things that require binocular vision. Great post!

    • narges30

      With this knowledge still we see how some people believe in magic, and sometimes they do not want to believe it as a trick. they think the magicians have a special power to do that. they do not know it is about human’s perceptions not the magicians power.

    • Ryan Danger McCall

      I have always been fascinated with illusions. From simple illusions like the video above to magic tricks performed. We must understand though that what we are seeing is just an illusion and while we might be fooled, it is not real. Every time I see a magic trick, I always get so excited and for a split second I think it was real. But I quickly understand it was just an illusion and often times the secret to the trick is right in front of my eyes.

    • Smenotti

      This is so cool! I remember arguing this point in my philosophy class a few semesters ago, and the professor getting so irritated at me (along with the rest of the class) because I kept bringing everything back to the science behind sensation perception and action. I have to admit though, I have been TRULY fooled several times in my life by really good magicians, and every time it makes me want to figure out how they fooled me so well. It really does seem like “magic”, even when you’re sitting right there waiting for it to happen! I wonder how many times we are “magically fooled” by nature everyday. When we think we see, or smell, or hear something that just isn’t there.

    • IvyBrown

      We play so many tricks on ourselves trying to rationalize contradictory input
      it’s a wonder we function the majority of the time! Nobody’s reality
      is what they think it is, nor is it like anyone else’s. I don’t know
      therefore magic, sounds reasonable.

    • timharvey87

      Anytime someone observes something, they compare it to things they have already observed in the past and currently understand. If it is something that has not be observed before, it is magic. It must have been so much easier to convince people you were magic before mass communication.

    • shanshan1314

      In Dustin’s blog we learned do not trust our memory, in Tina’s blog we learned do not trust our eyes. it is funny to know actually we could not trust any senses that we thought we could believe. Perception and Deception is really an interesting thing, before i was taught about that, i never think that it is actually true that the people far away from us is small and the people near us are bigger, and i never think there is anything wrong. I ever was a very amazing Japanese catoornist to draw three dimentional painting, in the painting, only his hand is actually real, others are just painting on the paper, but it looks so real, i ever tried very hard to find out how it is working, then i realize it is just for one angle, if you see the picture in another angle or another place, it would not be three dimentional painting any more.

    • vivianjingjing

      In china, there is a saying,”it is better to see one times rather than to hear for more times.”But the perception deception tells that all of our senses is possible to fool us, including visual, auditory, tactile,taste and smell. In addition, this tactile deception like rubber hand experiment have already applied to cure phantom limb for pain.

    • Alexa Riffe

      Perception deception intrigues the mass majority of the people I have come across and I believe it will continue to. The interaction between what we see and what we think we see is mind boggling to the average person when looking at illusions. I myself love the ponzo illusion, which is a great perception deception. The distance and irregular shape caused by the ponzo illusion is sure to decieve many.

    • Adam Braly

      I will never turn down a good magic show! Illusions are fascinating and leave me bewildered most of the time, but my brain does a right job of slapping me back to reality for the most part. Though, it’s interesting that certain adaptations have increased our likelihood to see meaning in the ambiguous environment – better to live and be fooled than to die a fool, eh?

    • dandymandyl

      I have always found illusions fascinating and really fun. And I think how the mind will rationalize and try to make sense of the things around is also fascinating. I dont think I have ever met someone who does not enjoy a good optical illusion!

    • fghani

      This brings me back to all my philosophy classes as well. Going a little off tangent here. Idealism – the idea that all what you perceive is all there is. There is no external material world. This would restrict you to believe that every single thing you experience is the truth including all these illusions; every time our minds trick us, the idealist would believe it is true.