Optical Illusions Only Work Because Your Brain Takes Constant Shortcuts

Our brain has adapted over time to process the world as quickly as possible.
Trevor English

The brain is at the core of who we are as humans. Despite what we may believe about ourselves, the entire essence of who we are is all balled up into this relatively tiny organ that's constantly firing electrical signals

Humans are still largely unaware of many intricacies of the brain and how it works. There are a plethora of subconscious processes that occur without us even recognizing them, whether leftover from evolutionary processes or internal responses to external stimuli.

One way that neuroscientists study the brain is looking at ways that it fails, or doesn't process something like it should. One of the most common ways of doing that is through optical illusions.

You're probably not seeing what's really there

Our ability to see is arguably the most complex sense that the human body has. Our eyes process everything around us to a high degree of precision. However, our eyes or rather our brain's visual cortex commonly make jumps to make processing all of this information easier. Errors commonly pop up when you are seeing things that you probably never notice. 

One of the biggest example of that is something that's happening to you right now. Our eyes send a signal to our brain that flips the real world. The floor is actually the ceiling based upon how our eyes are seeing things. It's our brains that adjust this input to correspond to how we need to process the world. 

Don't believe that everything is really upside down? If you get contact lenses or glasses that flip your vision, after a few days of wearing them, everything will flip back to right side up. Your brain is constantly working to make sure that it processes information in a way that it believes is most beneficial to your body.

Our brain's unseen assumptions

This simple everyday practice of flipping our visual inputs is a great example of how the brain makes corrections to everything around us. If something looks 'close enough' to our brain, then our brain typically just goes with it.

Optical Illusions Only Work Because Your Brain Takes Constant Shortcuts
Source: Wikimedia/Public Domain

Take for example the famous Ponzo Illusion above. This illusion plays on our brain's natural tendency to process distance, even in 2D images. This causes us to subconsciously distort the image based on perspective, making the bottom line look much smaller than the top line.

Another common optical illusion for our brain is tricking it into changing the color of things in shadow. Look at the image below. Squares A & B are the same color. 


Optical Illusions Only Work Because Your Brain Takes Constant Shortcuts
Source: Wikimedia/ Edward H. Adelson

This illusion occurs because our brains automatically adjust for shadows, making square B seem like it is the same color as the lighter colored squares. Still, don't believe that that's what is going on? Take a look at the image below.

Optical Illusions Only Work Because Your Brain Takes Constant Shortcuts
Source: Wikimedia/ Edward H. Adelson

 The prioritization of importance

Optical Illusions Only Work Because Your Brain Takes Constant Shortcuts
Source: Kleefeld/Pixabay

Our brains not only trick us into seeing things that aren't there, but they sometimes make it hard for us to process what is there. For example, take a look at the image above. If you try to read the word compared to naming the color of the words, you'll find that simply reading the words is far easier. In fact, when you try naming the color of the words, you might even get some wrong based on what the word is. 

This has to do with how we have taught our brain to process language. When reading, we never have to process the color of text. It's usually irrelevant unless to infer some kind of deeper meaning, like red for a correction. When our brains see text, they want to process that text and spit out the answer. It takes stopping that natural processing to be able to actually say the color of the words.

Our brain and its expectations

Our brain's expectations commonly fool our senses. Naturally, our brain has drawn connections between common events and their outcomes. This is a way our brain protects us. If we touch the stove and it burns us, then our brain says don't do that again.

It's rudimentary when it works, but this process can be exploited...

The most common way it can be exploited? The placebo effect. 

We have trained our brain to think that taking medicine will help the situation. In cases where the brain can have control over physical symptoms and we take medication we expect to help, the brain will make the medication help, whether it actually is or not. 

In the end, the fact that our brains can be deceived is overall a good thing. These shortcuts help us process all of our senses at once and quickly make sense of what is happening around us. 

If our brain wasn't taking these short cuts and "tricking" us, well then the world would be constantly upside down, we wouldn't be able to process depth with ease, and those sugar pills you're taking that you thought were blood pressure pills wouldn't be working.

Optical illusions exploit our brain's ability to make jumps and form pathways to speed up processing the world around us. For the most part, these illusions aren't detrimental to us and are just fun games or tricks. But they do help us realize that the way we see the world, isn't actually what the world really looks like.

Want to take a look at different optical illusions and how they trick your brain? Watch the video below:

Optical Illusions Only Work Because Your Brain Takes Constant Shortcuts

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