Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Are Illusions Even a Thing?

Traditional vision science is very excited about illusions. These are cases when perception seems to break down; there is a mismatch between what is out there and what we experience, and traditional approaches consider these breakdowns as clues to how vision has to work, given what it is working with. 

Ecological psychologists don’t like illusions. Typically, they occur when information is either made ambiguous or faked, and in general we think these are the wrong situations to study perception in. We sometimes engage with the literature on these effects, but usually to show how the trick is the result of not thinking ecologically. 

Rogers (2022) has taken this basic analysis but gone one interesting step further. He’s argued that the notion of ‘visual illusion’ is simply not a clear category; it’s not a useful way to describe any of the effects people study. He argues that there simply is no sufficient definition of what an illusion is that works, and that what we call illusions are just either tricks (as above) or inevitable consequences of how the visual system works. 

I am broadly on board with this additional step, and it’s made me think hard about what illusions are and how best to respond when people use them against direct perception.