Surrealpolitik: Twelve Examples of Illusion

Author: Jan Westerhoff

Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010)

Quick Summary

Provides examples of various kinds of illusions from a Buddhist perspective, and also discusses the central role of illusion in our lives and our perceptions of reality.


There are 14 quotes currently associated with this book.

Once upon a time there was a king in India. An astrologer told him: "Whoever shall drink the rain which falls seven days from now shall go mad." So the king covered his well, that none of the water may enter it. All of his subjects, however, drank the water, and went mad, while the king alone remained sane. Now the king could no longer understand what his subjects thought and did, nor could his subjects understand what the king thought and did. All of them shouted "The king is mad, the king is mad." Thus, having no choice, the king drank the water too. (page viii)
Tags: [Madness]
[A]n illusion is not something that does not exist, but something that is not what it seems. (page 7)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion, Dreams]
Where there are no photoreceptive cells we are obviously unable to see anything. What happens as you move the diagram closer to your face is that the light reflected from the black star finally falls on the blind spot and is therefore not registered by your visual system. An interesting question arises once we ask what we see where we don't see anything, that is, what we see at the place of the blind spot. Our visual field does not seem to have any gaps or blanked-out parts (like a TV screen with a Post-it note stuck to it) but is continuous. We realize that when the black star disappears, we see a blank page in its place, not a blank page with gaping hole. The area where we see nothing appears to us just like the surrounding bits of our visual space.

It therefore becomes apparent that the illusion created by the mind is not the disappearance of the black star -- this is simply due to the structure of the retina and is in itself no more surprising than that we cannot taste anything by holding it in our hand, as there are no taste buds on our fingertips. The illusion is that we see something else in its place that is not there in reality: the piece of paper covered by our blind spot is not white, but shows a black, star-shaped figure. We are therefore all suffering from partial visual anosognosia, or Anton's syndrome. This term is used to describe the curious case of blind patients who nevertheless claim they can see. Because they obviously have difficulties getting around in daily life, they invent the most ingenious explanations, apart from the one obvious one, namely that they are blind. While Anton's symptoms might justifiably strike us as a somewhat bizarre psychological condition, we should note that on a small scale our minds are playing exactly the same trick on us. We are not even aware that there are parts of our visual field with which we cannot see and that the continuity of our field of vision is a mere illusion. (page 17-18)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
In reply I would like to discuss something that is sometimes called the grand illusion of consciousness. This is our firm conviction that consciousness is continuous...

The time-gap experience is only one of the more extreme cases of the temporal discontinuity of consciousness: in fact shorter experiences of a similar sort happen frequently when we carry out familiar and habitual tasks, such as walking, reading, or writing. We usually do not notice the accompanying gaps in consciousness, but to conclude from this that there is in fact a continuous flow of consciousness is just like inferring that there is a light continuously on in your fridge, just because it is always on whenever you happen to check.

Considering these arguments it appears the cognitive illusions we are prone to are not just rare and isolated effects resulting from looking at carefully constructed diagrams or from performing visual machinations with one eye closed. There is an illusion at the very center of our life. Our consciousness, something that we all seem to know is a continuous, smoothly flowing structure without holes or gaps, is in fact nothing like this. Our consciousness is discontinuous in the extreme, although it does not appear to us to be so. Taking this into account it seems perhaps a little less counterintuitive when the Buddha says that "consciousness is a magic show, a hugger's trick entire." This might be exactly what consciousness is. (page 19-20,21-22)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
Evidence for the extent to which our expectations influence what we see can be found in the famous "anomalous playing-card experiment." In this experiment the subjects were shown a playing card, such as the five of spades, the ace of hearts, and so on, for short intervals (less than a second) and had to identify the card they saw. Some of the cards, however, were doctored: for example, there was a black three of hearts or a red two of spades. What the subjects usually reported when shown these cards was not what the card presented to them displayed, but a "normalized" version coherent with their expectations. A red four of spades would thus be described as either a red four of hearts (thus changing the form) or as a black four of spades (changing the color). As the subjects did not believe that there were going to be any anomalous cards shown to them, their observations were changed accordingly. Rather than believing what they saw, they saw what they believed they would see. (page 32-33)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
[W]e realize the force of our assumptions about what we see in shaping what we actually see. The force of superimposition does not just allow the viewer to read images of animals into patterns of an essentially random nature, it can also project images without any apparent foundation at all, as in the case of the Bohemian crater. (page 34)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
[T]he moon illusion is an illusion because it is based on a faulty mental model. (page 39)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
Looking at different illusory phenomena connected with the moon has shown us something about the dependence of what we perceive on our beliefs and assumptions. We only see an image of a cow or a rabbit on the face of the moon if we know what we are looking for. The belief that there is such an image allows us to project it onto an essentially random collection of spots. In the case of the Bohemian crater, Galileo's belief in its existence even let him superimpose a faulty impression produced by his telescope onto what he saw with the naked eye. Here, as in many other cases described in the psychological literature, it was not that perceptions brought us beliefs about what we perceived, ti was rather the beliefs bringing us perceptions of what we believed. As the soup bowl analysis of the moon illusion showed, such beliefs do not have to be explicit. Few would go around asserting that the heavens are shaped like an inverted bowl, yet this apparently natural assumption has important implications for how we perceive celestial objects.

It therefore seems very apt that Buddhist writers used the illusions of the moon as an illustration of the illusory projected self. For it seems to us plainly evident that we, as persons, have permanent or at least very stable selves distinct from our bodies and the things going on in our minds. That there is a self that is the owner of our bodies, the experiencer of our mental lives, and the agent of our actions appears as obvious as something we can clearly see in front of us. But, as we have just seen, what we can clearly see in front of us is sometimes just the product of the belief about what is there in front of us, and not a reflection of what is really there. (page 40)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
According to this [Buddhist] cognitive understanding, substance is regarded as an illusory superimposition that the mind naturally projects onto objects when attempting to conceptualize the world. Independent of one's particularly theoretical position concerning the existence or nonexistence of substance, substance is something that is superimposed on ordinary objects in the process of conceptualization. The different elements that make up a person, a body, beliefs, thoughts, desires, and so forth, for example, are seen as a single, permanent, independent self, due to the superimposition of substance on such a basis. The same happens when ordinary material things that have parts are apprehended as a single, permanent, independent objects.

It is because this cognitive default of the superimposition of substance is seen as the primary cause of suffering that the Buddhist philosophers draw a distinction between the understanding or arguments establishing emptiness and its realization. Being convinced by some Buddhist argument that substances do not exist does not usually entail that the things will not still appear to us as being substances or at least as being based on substances. The elimination of this appearance is only achieved by the realization of emptiness. The ultimate aim of the Buddhist project is therefore not just the establishment of a particular philosophical theory, but the achievement of a cognitive change. The elimination of substance as a theoretical posit by means of arguments has to be followed by its elimination as an automatically cognitive superimposition by means of specific practices. (page 47)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
A lucid dream is a dream in which the dreamer is conscious of dreaming but does not wake up. Although lucid dreams happen spontaneously to some people there are also a variety of techniques for inducing them. But the fact that some special effort is required to have a lucid dream points to the fact that our natural reaction to perceptions in dreams is to regard them as caused by external objects, rather than by our own minds. So it seems that our view of sensory information both in the waking state and in the dream state is generally determined by the principle of externality: in both cases we regard the source of the information to be something that is both external to us and existing independently of us. It requires a particular cognitive effort to question in a dream whether the things one sees are indeed caused by external sources, an effort that appears to be essential in inducing lucid dreaming. (page 54)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Dreams]
The Discourse on the King of Meditations, a fourth-century Buddhist text, remarks the following on the topic of mirages:

Know all phenomena to be like this:
At noon in midsummer,
a man tormented by thirst, marching on,
sees a mirage as a pool of water.
Know all phenomena to be like this:
Although a mirage contains no water,
confused beings will want to drink it.
But unreal water cannot be drunk.
(page 56)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion, Dreams]
[T]he suffering or pleasure we experience is determined to a crucial extent by the way in which we superimpose existents on appearances. As we saw in the example of the lung-cancer patients [note: surgery decisions vary depending on whether outcomes are presented as percent chance of death or percent chance of survival] the situations we experience as agreeable or disagreeable are not just out there, but depend to a crucial amount on the way we construct these situations ourselves. (page 68)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Rationality]
Interestingly enough what we experience as "the present moment" is considerably longer than the smallest unit of subjective time. Various psychological experiments succeeded in demonstrating that the duration of the present moment is about two to three seconds. For example, if we listen to the continuous clack-clack of a metronome it is possible to give a subjective accent to every second beat (clack clack clack clack clack...) -- as long as the "clacks" are not more than three seconds apart. Events separated by longer durations cannot be grouped into a single temporal unit anymore. (page 120)
Tags: [Truth & Real]
More than half of patients who have lost a limb suffer from the irritating illusion that it is somehow still there. This illusion can be surprisingly strong, to the extent that the patient still feels the results of using his phantom limb. The neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, one of the best known researchers into phantom limbs, tells the story of his patient whom he asked to lift a cup with his phantom hand. Just as he is about to reach out with the stump of his arm Ramachandran pulls the cup away. The patient cries out in pain. What is the explanation? The patient was just reaching through the cup handle and has felt the pain of his illusory fingers being twisted as the cup was pulled away. Even though the twisted finger was illusory, the pain experienced by the patient was as real as the cup that caused it.

Phantom limb can be extremely distressing or the patient, for they are often experienced as painful, burning, itching, or twisted into uncomfortable positions. In addition they are not easy to treat, not least because there is nothing to one found where the patient says the pain is coming from. In the past it was generally thought that the pain experienced in phantom limbs was the result of an inflammation of the nerve endings where the limb had been amputated. The nonsensical information that these nerves ending nowhere would then send back to the brain was experienced as pain. As a treatment sometimes a second amputation was carried out in order to remove the stump with the affected nerve endings, thereby stopping the pain at least temporarily. This tended not to be very successful; sometimes patients were not just left with the pain of the phantom limb but also experienced additional pain in the phantom stump...

Ramachandran came up with a new course of treatment. If the brain could somehow be convinced that the missing limb could still be moved, it might unlearn its assumptions,ption that the limb is paralyzed and stuck in an uncomfortable position, thereby removing the pain. But how does one move an object that does not exist? To do this Ramachandran constructed a device called the mirror box.

This is a simple wooden ox with two holes and a mirror serving as a middle partition. In the case of a patient with a left phantom hand he would put his right hand through the right hole and the stump through the left hole. The top of the left half of the box would then be covered. As the patient looks into the right half he seems to see his left hand restored -- it is the left-and-right reversed mirror image of his right hand. If the patient now makes a fist with his right hand it looks as if his left is clenching in unison. It appears to the brain s if it is indeed able to move the paralyzed phantom hand together with the healthy right hand.

Somewhat surprisingly, this very simple treatment of a very complex condition has led to the long-term improvement of many patients suffering from phantom limbs stuck in painful positions. Ramachandran's mirror box provides us with an interesting example of a case where a mirror image actually has a causal effect on the real world (page 170-171)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion, Rationality]