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Visual illusions are fun. You can create beautiful illusions by playing with colours, light, and patterns to produce images that can be deceptive or misleading to our brains. Visual illusions are very appealing: the celebrated “dress colour” puzzle went viral over the web in 2015. However, this is not a recent trend: there is evidence that it is since (at least) the Palaeolithic era that people are attracted to visual illusions.
Moreover, Visual illusions are theoretically interesting because they reveal the disagreement between our eyes and our brains. Besides being fun, this “disagreement” is useful to scientists as a way of exploring the functioning of the brain. Visual illusions must come from the visual system itself as they are systematic, not random. They constitute a sort of signature of the visual software employed by the brain. Thus, the overall pattern of illusions provides a powerful constraint on theories of visual perception. They help the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the brain.
Interestingly, artists included visual illusions in their works long before scientists understood the mechanisms behind them. This is particularly true of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who was interested in both the analysis of physical phenomena as well as the perception of these phenomena. For example, the Mona Lisa is the most-visited, most written about and most parodied work of art in the world. However, the ‘uncatchable smile’ that makes Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa so special may be due to a visual illusion of direction affecting the mouth of the Mona Lisa. When viewed directly the slant of her mouth appears to turn downwards, but when viewed in peripheral vision the edges of her mouth take an upward turn. This generates a perception of a dynamic mental state. Therefore, the collaboration between artists and scientists is very valuable; although from different viewpoints and for different purposes, they are both interested in understanding the disagreement between the eyes and the brain.
Alessandro Soranzo is Reader in Cognitive Psychology. His research interests are in visual cognition, aesthetics, and psychology of art.