Look closely at this black shape. Had you ever seen anything like it before? Now see if you can spot the black shape among these other shapes.
It is amazing how our brains ‘make sense’ of what we see using what we already know. You probably had no trouble spotting the black shape among the others. But do you see ten?
Perhaps you’ve been looking for ten black shapes or the number ten. It is only when you shift your focus from the black shapes to the white spaces between them, that you can see the word. The outline of the black shapes forms the letters that spell T E N. Once you see the word, it becomes difficult to focus on the black shapes again. This is because you have made sense of the image. Sense and meaning are key elements in communication.
I have created this illusion using the principle of surroundedness to represent the word ten and in turn, the concept of ten, which we are familiar with. Now, TEN only makes sense if you speak English. It could have been DIX, ZEHN, DIEZ, or DIECHI (ten in French, German, Spanish and Italian respectively), but I chose TEN, and if you speak English, then the word has meaning to you. Remember, the brain uses what it knows.
Douglas Hofstadter in his book ‘I am a Strange Loop’ speaks of another ‘illusion’ incident, with a box of envelopes, where his brain made sense of what he was touching using what he already knew. As he describes, he was emptying a box of envelopes (about 100) and grabbed them all at once by the center. To his surprise, he discovered that there was a marble between the envelopes. He was puzzled as to how it got there, but when he looked for it, he discovered there was no marble at all! It took him a few minutes to work out what was happening. As it turns out, the envelope design causes four corners of paper to meet at the center of the envelope and these four pieces of paper on top of each other, plus a layer of glue, multiplied by 100 envelopes, caused a bulk to build in the center of the pack of envelopes. When he grabbed the envelopes, his brain used the information it had from his past to interpret the bulk created by overlapping paper and glue as as a marble!! This type of illusion is called an ‘epiphenomenal illusion’, and again, it illustrates how powerful the mind is at interpreting ‘reality’.
In the TEN illusion above, the combination of the image and the prompting question, sent your brain on a quest to make sense of what you were looking at. In a way, you began to fossick. When your brain is triggered to find meaning in something, that something becomes a sign. According to this principle, anything can become a sign. From objects to gestures, we are surrounded by potential signs in our everyday life. Signs are interpreted using our familiar meanings, beliefs, experiences, etc., and from these interpretations we get our sense of reality. The question is: If we changed our beliefs could we change our reality?
Text & image: Mithzay Pomenta