What we see isn’t there

When I was a child, I came across an old book of prints tucked away in a dark corner of the library. There was a particular print which caught my eye. It was called Relativity by the artist Escher. I was drawn in by the faceless people (or was it one person) walking up and down the never-ending stairs and the scenes outside the windows – each one right in itself but contorted into different planes when seen as a whole. 

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born on 17th June 1898 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. He was a sickly child who was sent to a special school at seven. Whether it was due to ill health or lack of ability, he went on to flunk all his grades. But one thing Escher exceled at was drawing. As a child he was always sketching (usually outside) – studying nature – things like insects, plants or landscapes. 

As he developed, Escher extended his range into woodcuts and lithographs and, over time, his creations became more and more complex. Strange and intricate scenes that baffled the eyes. Optical illusions that didn’t make sense. Impossible constructions with ladders going up and down all at once. He drew water channels that travelled the wrong way, carved fish that morphed into birds and those never-ending staircases – perhaps an inspiration for J K Rowling?

Relativity (1953). The official website published by M.C. Escher Foundation and M.C. Escher Company.

“The multiple staircases in the Grand Staircase led from platform to platform and went as high as the seventh floor where they came to an end. The stairs also had a knack for moving around the staircase chamber, usually when a student was walking up one of them.”  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Escher was an industrious artist producing 448 works in his lifetime. Sadly, he wasn’t accepted by the art world until late in life; his first retrospective in the Netherlands wasn’t until he was 70. Britain’s first exhibition of his work was at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2015 – 43 years after his death. 

Like fellow Dutchman Vincent Van Gogh, acclaim came after death for Escher. Van Gogh’s work is now front and centre in our minds and Escher’s work is equally popular. In fact, a 2011 an exhibition of Escher’s art in Rio de Janeiro attracted nearly 10,000 people each day. At over half a million visitors, it was the most visited museum exhibition in the world that year; over the last four years there have been another 36 Escher exhibitions in different countries. You can read more about Escher here and see his images here.

Escher draws us into his prints using optical illusions – little magical tricks for our eyes that really do intrigue us. Scholars are fascinated by illusions too – there is a plethora of academic research on them because they provide a window into our brains and how we process information. Illusions are categorised into groups – physical, physiological and cognitive. An example of a physical illusion is when we look at a mountain on a clear day. The presence of haze or clouds tells us something is far away. But, without haze, our brains trick us into thinking the mountain is closer than it really is. 

Two well-known cognitive illusions are Ponzo and Müller-Lyer.  Ponzo is on the left and demonstrates how one yellow line appears longer than the other. That’s despite the fact that they are both the same length. Müller-Lyer, on the right, uses lines and arrows to create the same illusion. 


Figure-ground illusions are also popular and we’ve known about these for a long time. The Mimbres culture pot on the left is dated between 1000 – 1150 AD and the modern one on the right is a face/vase illusion, which many of us have seen before. 


Illusions also do the rounds on social media. Remember the “The Dress – that viral sensation that blew up the internet in 2015? If not, it was a photo on Facebook that got 10 million views in its first week. Why? Because it was a perfect example of false reality: how we are utterly convinced that what we see is true, even though others see something completely different. Some people looked at the photo of “The dress” and were sure it was blue/black. Others swore it was white/gold. As I mentioned, perception is personal.

Illusions come up in the news too. This is a story from a few months ago about a container ship flying in mid-air (see the photograph here). There’s another example here of a different ship weeks later. We haven’t invented ships that fly, so what created these illusions? They were both was caused by “temperature inversion” – a large difference between the temperature of the sea and the air above. It’s a “superior mirage” – the same process that conjures up a false oasis in the desert. 

Boats floating mid-air, pools of water appearing and vanishing, it’s magical stuff. If we didn’t have the scientific explanation, we’d think we were mad. In fact, one of our challenges of living in a data driven world is that we place too much weight on the information we receive. What we see is more art than science. Our brains fill in the gaps – we make assumptions, we jump to conclusions. We are riddled with perceptual inaccuracies. 

Take photography for example. Sometimes we see a scene and think it would make a great photograph. We take one but are disappointed since it looks nothing like what we can see. Clearly, the fault lies with the camera. Actually, it’s because our eyes deceive us about what is there. The camera on the other hand is more faithful to reality.  Seeing and believing are intertwined and it explains why we often cannot agree with each other. 

We humans crave clarity – we love movies and TV shows with heroes and villains. We feel more comfortable when we place people in clearly labelled camps. Yet the world is more complicated than this – it is not neat at all. With too much information to process we end up reducing it down to a manageable size. We take out the outliers. We remove the bits that don’t make sense. We feel better because it fits inside a box. But we also add things in too. It’s worth remembering that at times we see things that are not there at all. 


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog “Killing Ourselves for Work” on the same site. 

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