When an observer is confronted with a visual assortment of dots, the brain may group the dots that “belong together.” These groupings are made on the basis of such things as observed similarity (e.g., red versus black dots), proximity, common direction of movement, perceptual set (the way one is expecting to see things grouped), and extrapolation (one's estimate of what will happen based on an extension of what is now happening).
Closure (a term used in Gestalt psychology) is the illusion of seeing an incomplete stimulus as though it were whole. Thus, one unconsciously tends to complete (close) a triangle or a square that has a gap in one of its sides. While a person watches a movie, closure occurs to fill the intervals between what are really rapidly projected still pictures — giving the illusion of uninterrupted motion.
The “figure-ground” illusion is commonly experienced when one gazes at the illustration of a white vase, the outline of which is created by two black profiles (see Figure 1--> ). At any moment, one will be able to see either the white vase (in the centre area) as “figure” or the black profiles on each side (in which case the white is seen as “ground”). The fluctuations of figure and ground may occur even without conscious effort. Seeing one aspect usually excludes seeing the other.
Another example of ambiguity and object reversibility is the Necker cube (see Figure 2--> , example A), which may seem to flip-flop. Some studies have suggested that younger people tend to perceive these reversals more readily than do their elders.
The Müller-Lyer illusion is based on the Gestalt principles of convergence and divergence: the lines at the sides seem to lead the eye either inward or outward to create a false impression of length. The Poggendorff illusion depends on the steepness of the intersecting lines. As obliqueness is decreased, the illusion becomes less compelling. In the Zöllner illusion, the cross-hatching disturbs the perception of parallel lines. A figure seen touching converging lines, as in the Ponzo illusion, seems larger than another figure of the same size placed between the lines where they are farther apart. In a related experience, linear perspective creates the illusion that parallel lines or contours (such as railroad tracks) converge as they recede from the viewer.
In studies of visual verticality, experimenters investigated the conditions that determine perception (space perception) of the “upright.” A tilted chair that could be mechanically controlled by the subject was placed in a slanted room containing visual indicators of verticals and horizontals. When various persons were asked to sit in the chair and align themselves in a vertical position, some of the subjects aligned themselves with the “true vertical” determined by gravity, while others experienced the illusion of verticality by aligning themselves with the visual directions they saw in the slanted room. Closing the eyes made “true” alignment easier.
Staring at a single bright spot in an otherwise darkened room creates the illusion that the stationary light is moving ( autokinetic effect ). One theory to account for this is that the impression is caused by minute eye movements (movement perception) of the observer. The so-called phi phenomenon is an illusion of movement that arises when stationary objects — light bulbs, for example — are placed side by side and illuminated rapidly one after another. The effect is frequently used on theatre marquees to give the impression of moving lights.
Perhaps the best real-life example of a perceptual illusion is the Moon illusion. When the Moon is at the horizon, it appears to be much larger than it does when it is high in the sky. Yet when the Moon is photographed at various points across the sky, all the images on the negatives are the same size. Considerable debate surrounds the source of the Moon illusion. Some explanations have attributed it to the paradoxical idea that the Moon at the horizon seems larger because the brain perceives it as being farther away than the Moon at the sky's zenith. Another explanation is that the lack of distance cues in the night sky causes the eyes to adjust to a near-focus position, which makes the high Moon appear smaller.
Many sensory illusions may be described as the aftereffects of the stimulation, or overstimulation, of the senses. Sensitivity in any of the senses may be measured as the just-perceptible intensity (threshold, or limen) of the appropriate stimulus. The smallest detectable stimulus is called the absolute threshold, while the smallest detectable change in the intensity of a stimulus is called the difference threshold. Such thresholds can serve as points of reference, or anchors, against which subsequent stimuli are judged or perceived. Yet sensory anchors fluctuate within the same individual under different conditions, and in some cases they can mislead a person about the properties of subsequent stimuli. For example, two successive stimuli may be identical but nevertheless give the illusion of being different.
This illusion may be explained in part by a “fading trace” theory, proposed by Gestalt psychologists. The theory suggests that a physical trace (in the form of temporarily excited nerve cells) of an original stimulus remains in the brain even after that stimulus stops and that this trace influences the estimate or appreciation of a subsequent stimulus.
The strength of the trace, also called an aftereffect, and the speed of its disappearance vary greatly in individual cases. People who are field dependent (that is, who tend to observe a field in its totality) are said to show weaker aftereffect traces. Conversely, field-independent subjects (those who, by selective attention , are more likely to consider a specific stimulus apart from its context) show stronger aftereffects.
The normal human eye (eye, human) can detect about 130 gradations of colour in the visible spectrum (as in the rainbow), about 20 barely noticeable differences within a given colour, and about 500 variations of brightness. However, when two spots of equally bright light are observed in close succession, the first intensity may seem brighter. The first light may be said to serve the function of brightness adaptation (or adjustment) in the eye; therefore, the second light will fall on a partly adapted and therefore less sensitive retina. In a brief time, such excitement in the retina (or even in the brain) tends to subside, or fade. As a result of the fading traces of excitement, various hues of a given colour may appear to be lighter or darker when looked at successively.
Contrast-colour phenomena also may result from such fading traces. A successive contrast occurs when, after one has stared at a red surface, a green surface looks much brighter. As one enters a dark room from bright sunshine, the room at first seems quite dark by contrast. A simultaneous contrast occurs when an area of brightness is seen against a less intense or a more intense background. If a gray patch of paper is placed on a black background, it looks whiter than it did before; if placed on a white background, it looks darker.
The felt perception of differences in weights received experimental attention in 1899, when experiments indicated that a second weight feels either heavier or lighter than an immediately preceding identical weight. This illusion results partially from the expectancy of the person doing the lifting. Having lifted the first weight, the subject is “set” for a certain effort on the next try. If the second weight is lifted quickly and easily, it will feel lighter than the first; if it comes up more slowly, it will feel heavier. Expectancy, or set, is also often invoked in efforts to explain the size-weight illusion, in which a large cardboard box feels lighter than a smaller box even though both weigh the same.