Why You Often Shouldn’t Believe Your Eyes

The optical illusions of M.C. Escher remind us that things aren’t always what they seem

Playing with perspective: M.C. Escher at work. Image Credit: Museu de Arte Popular, Lisbon, Portugal/Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to the common saying, sometimes what you see is not what you get. There’s the infomercial model that claims you can lose weight without exercising or ever being hungry. There’s the politician who presents a budget, promising a bonanza of new spending with no new taxes to pay for it. The latest example is the spectacular rise—and fall—of tech billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, whose cryptocurrency empire turned out to be little more than smoke and mirrors.

Not all illusions are deceitful, of course, and very often the ability to identify an illusion and see beyond it is the best path to true knowledge. This is what first drew me to economics. I was fascinated that economic insights often led me to reach conclusions almost the polar opposite of what I’d initially believed.

An obvious example is the minimum wage. I’d always heard that without it, we’d all be working in sweatshops. But the research is clear, even if nuanced, that minimum wage laws often lead to reduced work hours or fewer fringe benefits for low-wage workers. Unemployment is also common. That’s pretty different from the story I was told as a kid by my teachers and parents. Another example is the belief that as some people get richer, others must be getting poorer as a result. Economics destroys this kind of zero-sum thinking, which fails to recognize that economic growth is a tide that can lift all boats.

In art, too, not everything is always what it seems. When I was in 6th grade, I had a math teacher who was a huge fan of Maurits Cornelis Escher’s work. M.C. Escher was a Dutch artist who produced his best-known work in the mid-20th century. He was a master of surrealist imagery, often incorporating concepts from mathematics and architecture into his woodcuts, drawings and lithographs. His art is known for its optical illusions, paradoxes and unique ways of looking at particular situations.

In his “Ascending and Descending” lithograph, for example, people are walking in two parallel lines on a stairway that runs around the rooftop of a building. Those walking in the outside line are walking upstairs, while a separate line of individuals is passing them on their right, going down. The four independent stairways run along each side of the building and connect to form a square, despite the fact that each staircase is ascending (or descending, depending on the direction being walked). Thus, the stairs form a kind of endless staircase, in which people will keep following it around in circles ad infinitum. It makes no sense logically, but visually it looks correct because each set of stairs looks as though it ascends into another that ascends still farther.

Stairs are a consistent theme in Escher’s work, as are ladders that seem to lead to nowhere in particular. In his work titled “Relativity,” stairways run around a strange building that has a kind of indoor, compartment-style feel. Some stairways appear to run sideways or even upside down. From the perspective of the individuals walking along them, they always seem upright. But from the perspective of an outside observer, they run every which way.

“Relativity” obviously has connections to Albert Einstein’s famous theory. We can think similarly about our positions on planet Earth. Because it is a giant sphere, relative to one another some of us will be standing upright, while others will be horizontal or upside down. From our own position, we always feel upright, but from the perspective of an alien on Mars we’d appear to be standing with our heads pointing almost any direction.

“Hand with Reflecting Sphere.” Image Credit: Official M.C. Escher website via Wikipedia.

Spheres also come up occasionally in Escher’s work, such as in his “Hand with Reflecting Sphere,” in which a hand holds a round, silvery orb that resembles a crystal ball. The image of the artist appears in the orb’s reflection. The room about him is warped because the sphere is curved, again demonstrating how reality appears to change with perspective.

In Julia Galef’s fantastic book, “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t,” she has a chapter called “How To Be Wrong,” where she presents the reader with a picture of two raccoons standing on a sandy hill. The photographer appears to be standing below them with a camera focused upward. Above the raccoons a rock appears to be levitating in the sky.

Levitation, of course, defies the known laws of physics, leaving the viewer confused. After a minute or two, observers will recognize that their initial assumption about the position of the photographer was wrong and is, in fact, the opposite of the truth. Rather than looking up at the raccoons, the photographer is looking down at them. It’s not the sky that meets the hillside, but a lake meeting an embankment. Thus, the rock is partially submerged in water, not floating like a UFO in the sky.

Galef’s book is about how to train one’s mind to avoid allowing innate biases to distort one’s viewpoint. It’s one of the very best books I read last year. A lesson from both Galef’s and Escher’s work is to never stop educating yourself so you can continue to identify the missing pieces in the puzzle we call reality. Some of Escher’s work even resembles puzzle pieces, such as his “Day and Night” or “Smaller and Smaller.” The metaphor is appropriate: Seeing through a distorted picture to the underlying truth often means pulling together disjointed, seemingly unrelated pieces of information until they come to form one uniform and consistent picture.

Sometimes there’s no right answer about which way is up and which is down. We’ve all probably seen the internet meme of a dress that some people think is white and gold, while others see it as blue and black. In such cases, everything is relative. But in other cases, there is an objective up and down, and those are the cases we need to be most on the lookout for, to ensure we’re looking at the situation from the right perspective. If we don’t watch out, we might think we are coasting to success, only to turn around and realize we’ve been riding an express elevator to the basement the whole time.

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