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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 18.djvu/535

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OPTICAL ILLUSIONS OF MOTION.

OPTICAL ILLUSIONS OF MOTION.
By SILVANUS P. THOMPSON, B. A., D. SC.

THERE are frequent occasions of conflict between the receptive faculties of the senses and the reflective faculties of the intellect, occasions on which the mind, prejudging of the sensation received, assigns it to a non-existent cause. Of all the senses none is more frequently the seat of such deceptive judgments than that of sight; and in the science of physiological optics a very considerable share of attention is claimed by optical illusions. For the purposes of convenience, we may draw a distinction between these illusions, which are the direct result of certain properties or imperfections of the eye as an optical instrument, and those which arise from obliquities of judgment in interpreting the sensations optically impressed upon the retina of the eye. In practice, however, it is almost impossible to draw a hard-and-fast line between the two classes of illusions, almost all partaking of both characters. Thus, for example, it has lately been shown that we habitually draw geometrical forms too large in the horizontal dimension as compared with their vertical dimension; we draw oblate ellipses where we intend to draw circles; the explanation of this being that with our two eyes we really see spheres as oblate ellipses. Here is, in fact, an illusion of pure association—yet based upon the facts of physical and physiological optics. So, again, certain inequalities in the curvature of the lenses of the eye, producing the optical defect of astigmatism, cause objects that are horizontal in position to form images at shorter (or longer as the case may be) distances from the eye than the images of vertical objects; the result being that, unless the defect is corrected by suitable lenses, vertical and horizontal objects (such as the bars of a window) do not appear to be at the same distance from the observer, though really equally remote. This would, at first sight, appear to be a purely physical illusion, and not psychological. Nevertheless, a little consideration will show that since our perception of distance is a psychological factor in the case, and that this perception is based in part upon the muscular sensations of adjustment of the lenses of the eye to exact focus, the illusion is one which has a psychological as well as a physical raison d'être. Again, take some illusions ordinarily supposed to be one purely of mental association: the common illusion of every day, that the sun or moon when a few degrees from the horizon looks larger than when high in the sky, appears at first sight to be due simply to the fact that when the orb is near the horizon the distant objects upon that horizon whose size we know, or can judge of, appear relatively small, and the sun's disk relatively large—in fact, that the illusion is one purely of association of ideas. Nevertheless, when we look a little closer into the matter, we