Thinking Out Loud

January 19, 2021

Politics, Race, Viruses, Immigration: The Illusion Analogy

So what do you see?

Do you see a vase? Or do you see two profiles of people facing each other (and not social distancing)?

It occurred to me last week that this is an analogy to where we find ourselves in a coincidentally black-and-white situation with regard to the issues of the day, be it the U.S. federal election, models of theories of the impact of ethnicity, masking or non-masking, getting vaccinated or remaining an anti-vaxxer, being pro-immigration or anti-immigration, etc.

Things are currently polarized. Like we’ve never seen before.

Fact checking is pointless, because sources are challenged. Is it my truth or your truth? Where might objective truth be found? Social media has become a default news source, so you’re getting most of your information from your brother-in-law’s Facebook post.

Which brings us back to the vase above. The picture — and there are now dozens of variations — is called Rubin’s Vase, attributed to the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin who created it around 1915.

The key to the whole thing is that you can’t see both the vase and the profiles at the same time. At any given millisecond you’re seeing either one or the other. Wikipedia puts it this way: “The visual effect generally presents the viewer with two shape interpretations, each of which is consistent with the retinal image, but only one of which can be maintained at a given moment.”

And this is where the analogy breaks down, because if you’re seeing a vase, or a goblet, or a birdbath; I can then point out the faces to you. You may remain loyal to your initial impression, but you’ll be forced to concede another perspective is possible.

But in real life, it’s often impossible to get someone to see the contrary position.

Or admit that they see it…

…Interestingly, Wikipedia links to an article on Pareidolia, which is the way we read things into certain stimuli that aren’t really there; “the tendency for incorrect perception of a stimulus as an object, pattern or meaning known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, seeing faces in inanimate objects or abstract patterns, or hearing hidden messages in music. Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, the Man in the Moon…”

(Interesting for the purposes of readers here, is that later on the article notes: “There have been many instances of perceptions of religious imagery and themes, especially the faces of religious figures, in ordinary phenomena. Many involve images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary,…”)

If Rubin’s Vase helps us understand polarization of opinion, I would argue that Pareidolia helps us understand conspiracy theories which are, in simple terms, reading something into a situation which isn’t there.

 

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