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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/January 1899/The Mind's Eye


Hamlet.—My father,—Methinks, I see my father.
Horatio.—O, where, my lord?
Hamlet.—In my mind's eye, Horatio.

IT is a commonplace taught from nursery to university that we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and feel with the fingers. This is the truth, but not the whole truth. Indispensable as are the sense organs in gaining an acquaintance with the world in which we live, yet they alone do not determine how extensive or how accurate that acquaintance shall be. There is a mind behind the eye and the ear and the finger tips which guides them in gathering information, and gives value and order to the exercise of the senses. This is particularly true of vision, the most intellectual of all the senses, the one in which mere acuteness of the sense organ counts least and the training in observation counts most. The eagle's eye sees farther, but our eyes tell us much more of what is seen.

The eye is often compared to a photographic camera, with its eyelid cap, its iris shutter, its lens, and its sensitive plate—the retina; when properly adjusted for distance and light, the image is formed on the retina as on the glass plate, and the picture is taken. So far the comparison is helpful; but while the camera takes a picture whenever and wherever the plate happens to be exposed, the complete act of seeing requires some co-operation on the part of the mind. The retina may be exposed a thousand times and take but few pictures; or perhaps it is better to say that the pictures may be taken, but remain undeveloped and evanescent. The pictures that are developed are stacked up, like the negatives in the photographer's shop, in the pigeonholes of our mental storerooms—some faded and blurred, some poorly arranged or mislaid, some often referred to and fresh prints made therefrom, and some quite neglected.

In order to see, it is at once necessary that the retina be suitably exposed toward the object to be seen, and that the mind be favorably disposed to the assimilation of the impression. True seeing, observing, is a double process, partly objective or outward—the thing seen and the retina—and partly subjective or inward—the picture mysteriously transferred to the mind's representative, the brain, and there received and affiliated with other images. Illustrations of such seeing "with the mind's eye" are not far to seek. Wherever the beauties and conformations of natural scenery invite the eye of man does he discover familiar forms and faces (Fig. 1); the forces of Nature have rough-hewn the rocks, but the human eye detects and often creates the resemblances. The stranger to whom such curiosities of form are first pointed out often finds it difficult to discover the resemblance, but once seen the face or form obtrudes itself in every view and seems the most conspicuous feature in the outlook. The flickering fire furnishes a fine background for the activity of the mind's eye, and against this it projects the forms and fancies which the leaping flames and the burning embers from time to time suggest. Not all see these fire-pictures readily, for our mental eyes differ more from one another than the physical ones, and perhaps no two persons see the same picture in quite the same way. It is not quite true, however, as many have held, that in waking hours we all have a world in common, but in dreams each has a world of his own, for our waking worlds are made different by the differences in what engages our interest and our attention. It is true that our eyes when open are opened very largely to the same views, but by no one observer are all these views, though visible, really seen.

This characteristic of human vision often serves as a source of amusement. The puzzle picture with its tantalizing face, or animal, or what not, hidden in the trees, or fantastically constructed out of heterogeneous elements that make up the composition, is to many quite irresistible. We turn it about in all directions, wondering where the hidden form can be, scanning every detail of the picture, until suddenly a chance glimpse reveals it, plainly staring us in the

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Fig. 1.[1]—The man's face in the rocks is quite distinct, and is usually readily found when it is known that there is a face somewhere. (For this view from the Dalles of the St. Croix, Minn., I am indebted to the courtesy of Mr. W. H. Dudley, of Madison, Wis.)

face. When several persons are engaged in this occupation, it is amusing to observe how blind each is to what the others see; their physical eyes see alike, but their mental eyes reflect their own individualities.

Thousands upon thousands of persons handle our silver dollar, but few happen to observe the lion's head which lies concealed in the representation of the familiar head of Liberty; frequently even a careful examination fails to detect this hidden emblem of British rule; but, as before, when once found, it is quite obvious (Fig. 2). For similar reasons it is a great aid in looking for an object to know what to look for; to be readily found, the object, though lost to sight, should be to memory clear. Searching is a mental process similar to the matching of a piece of fabric in texture or color, when one has forgotten the sample and must rely upon the remembrance of its appearance. If the recollection is clear and distinct, recognition takes place when the judgment decides that what the physical eye sees corresponds to the image in the mind's eye; with an indistinct mental image the

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Fig. 2.—In order to see the lion's head, hold the dollar exactly inverted and the head will be discovered lacing the left, as above outlined. It is clearer on the dollar itself than in this reproduction.

recognition becomes doubtful or faulty. The novice in the use of the microscope experiences considerable difficulty in observing the appearance which his instructor sees and describes, and this because his conception of the object to be seen is lacking in precision. Hence his training in the use of the microscope is distinctly aided by consulting the illustrations in the text-book, for they enable his mental eye to realize the pictures which it should entertain. He may be altogether too much influenced by the pictures thus suggested to his mental vision, and draw what is really not under his microscope at all; much as the young arithmetician will manage to obtain the answer which the book requires even at the cost of a resort to very unmathematical processes. For training in correct and accurate vision it is necessary to acquire an alert mental eye that observes all that is objectively visible, but does not permit the subjective to add to or modify what is really present.

The importance of the mind's eye in ordinary vision is also well illustrated in cases in which we see or seem to see what is not really

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Fig. 3.—Observe the appearance of these letters at a distance of eight to twelve feet. An interesting method of testing the activity of the mind's eye with these letters is described in the text.

present, but what for one cause or another it is natural to suppose is present. A very familiar instance of this process is the constant overlooking of misprints—false letters, transposed letters, and missing letters—unless these happen to be particularly striking. We see only

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Fig. 3a. Fig. 3b.

the general physiognomy of the word and the detailed features are supplied from within; in this case it is the expected that happens. Reading is done largely by the mental eye; and entire words, obviously suggested by the context, are sometimes read in, when they have been accidentally omitted. This is more apt to occur with the

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Fig. 4.—For description, see text.

irregular characters used in manuscript than in the more distinct forms of the printed alphabet, and is particularly frequent in reading over what one has himself written. In reading proof, however, we are eager to detect misprints, and this change in attitude helps to make them visible. It is difficult to illustrate this process intentionally, because the knowledge that one's powers of observation are about to be tested places one on one's guard, and thus suppresses the natural activity of the mind's eye and draws unusual attention to objective details. Let the reader at this point hold the page at some distance off—say, eight or twelve feet—and draw an exact reproduction of the letters shown in Fig. 3. Let him not read further until this has been done, and perhaps he may find that he has introduced strokes which were not present in the original. If this is not the case, let him try the test upon those who are ignorant of its nature, and he will find that most persons will supply light lines to complete the contours of the letters which in the original are suggested but not really present; the original outline, Fig. 3a, becomes something like Fig. 3b,

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Fig. 5.—The black and white portions of this design are precisely alike, but the effect of looking at the figure as a pattern in black upon a white background, or as a pattern in white upon a black background, is quite different, although the difference is not easily described. Fig. 6.—When this figure is viewed as a black pattern on a white background, the four main vertical lines seem far from parallel; when it is viewed as a white pattern on a black background this illusion disappears (or nearly so), and the black lines as well as the white ones seem parallel.

and so on for the rest of the letters. The physical eye sees the former, but the mental eve sees the latter.

I tried this experiment with a class of over thirty university students of Psychology, and, although they were disposed to be quite critical and suspected some kind of an illusion, only three or four drew the letters correctly; all the rest filled in the imaginary light contours; some even drew them as heavily as the real strokes. I followed this by an experiment of a similar character. I placed upon a table a figure (Fig. 4) made of light cardboard, fastened to blocks of wood at the base so that the pieces would easily stand upright. The middle piece, which is rectangular and high, was placed a little in front of the rest of the figure. The students were asked to describe

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Fig. 7.—This is a highly enlarged reproduction taken from a half-tone process print of Lord Kelvin. It appeared in the Photographic Times.

precisely what they saw, and with one exception they all described, in different words, a semicircular piece of cardboard with a rectangular piece in front of it. In reality there was no half-circle of cardboard, but only parts of two quarter-circles. The students, of course, were well aware that their physical eyes could not see what was behind the middle cardboard, but they inferred that the two side pieces were parts of one continuous semicircle. This they saw, so far as they saw it at all, with their mind's eye.

There is a further interesting class of illustrations in which a single outward impression changes its character according as it is viewed as representing one thing or another. In a general way we see the same thing all the time, and the image on the retina does not change. But as we shift the attention from one portion of the view to another, or as we view it with a different mental conception of what the figure represents, it assumes a different aspect, and to our mental eye becomes quite a different thing. A slight but interesting change takes place if we view Fig. 5 first with the conception that the black is the pattern to be seen and the white the background, and again try to see the white as the pattern against a black background. I give a further illustration of such a change in Fig. 6. In our first and natural view of this we focus the attention upon the black lines and observe the familiar illusion, that the four vertical lines seem far from parallel. That they are parallel can be verified by measurement, or by covering up all of the diagram except the four main

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Fig. 8.—This drawing may be viewed as the representation of a book standing on its half-opened covers as seen from the back of the book; or as the inside view of an open book showing the pages.
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Fig. 10.—The smaller square may be regarded as either the nearer face of a projecting figure or as the more distant face of a hollow figure. Fig. 9.—When this figure is viewed as an arrow, the upper or feathered end seems flat; when the rest of the arrow is covered, the feathered end may be made to project or recede like the book cover in Fig. 8.

lines. But if the white part of the diagram is conceived as the design against a black background, then the design is no longer the same, and with this change the illusion disappears, and the four lines seem parallel, as they really are. It may require a little effort to bring about this change, but it is very marked when once realized.

A curious optical effect which in part illustrates the change in appearance under different aspects is reproduced in Fig. 7. In this case the enchantment of distance is necessary to produce the transformation. Viewed at the usual reading distance, we see nothing but an irregular and meaningless assemblage of black and white blotches. At a distance of fifteen to eighteen feet, however, a man's head appears quite clearly. Also observe that after the head has once been realized it becomes possible to obtain suggestions of it at nearer distances.

A much larger class of ambiguous diagrams consists of those which represent by simple outlines familiar geometrical forms or objects. We cultivate such a use of our eyes, as indeed of all our faculties, as will on the whole lead to the most profitable results. As a rule, the particular impression is not so important as what it represents. Sense impressions are simply the symbols or signs of things

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Fig. 11.—This represents an ordinary table-glass, the bottom of the glass and the entire rear side, except the upper portion, being seen through the transparent nearer side, and the rear apparently projecting above the front. But it fluctuates in appearance between this and a view of the glass in which the bottom is seen directly, partly from underneath, the whole of the rear side is seen through the transparent front, and the front projects above the back. Fig. 12.—In this scroll the left half may at first seem concave and the right convex, it then seems to roll or advance like a wave, and the left seems convex and the right concave, as though the trough of the wave had become the crest, and vice versa.

or ideas, and the thing or the idea is more important than the sign. Accordingly, we are accustomed to interpret lines, whenever we can, as the representations of objects. We are well aware that the canvas or the etching or the photograph before us is a flat surface in two dimensions, but we see the picture as the representation of solid objects in three dimensions. This is the illusion of pictorial art. So strong is this tendency to view lines as the symbols of things that if there is the slightest chance of so viewing them, we invariably do so; for we have a great deal of experience with things that present their contours as lines, and very little with mere lines or surfaces. If we view outlines only, without shading or perspective or anything to definitely suggest what is foreground and what background, it becomes possible for the mind to supply these details and see foreground as background, and vice versa.

A good example to begin with is Fig. 8. These outlines will probably suggest at first view a book, or better a book cover, seen with its back toward you and its sides sloping away from you; but

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Fig. 13. Fig. 13a. Fig. 13b.
Figs. 13, 13a. and 13b.—The two methods of viewing Fig. 13 are described in the text. Figs. 13a and 13b are added to make clearer the two methods of viewing Fig. 13. The heavier lines seem to represent the nearer surface. Fig. 13a more naturally suggests the nearer surface of the box in a position downward and to the left, and Fig. 13b makes the nearer side seem to he upward and to the right. But in spite of the heavier outlines of the one surface, it may be made to shift positions from foreground to background, although not so readily as in Fig. 13.

it may also be viewed as a book opened out toward you and presenting to you an inside view of its contents. Should the change not come readily, it may be facilitated by thinking persistently of the appearance of an open book in this position. The upper portion of Fig. 9 is practically the same as Fig. 8, and if the rest of the figure be covered up, it will change as did the book cover; when, however, the whole figure is viewed as an arrow, a new conception enters, and the apparently solid book cover becomes the flat feathered part of the

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Fig. 14.—Each member of this frieze represents a relief ornament, applied upon the background, which in cross-section would be an isosceles triangle with a huge obtuse angle, or a space of similar shape hollowed out of the solid wood or stone. In running the eye along the pattern, it is interesting to observe how variously the patterns fluctuate from one of these aspects to the other.

arrow. Look at the next figure (Fig. 10), which represents in outline a truncated pyramid with a square base. Is the smaller square nearer to you, and are the sides of the pyramid sloping away from you toward the larger square in the rear? Or are you looking into the hollow of a truncated pyramid with the smaller square in the background? Or is it now one and now the other, according as you decide to see it? Here (Fig. 13) is a skeleton box which you may conceive as made of wires outlining the sides. Now the front, or side nearest to me, seems directed downward and to the left; again, it has shifted its position and is no longer the front, and the side which appears to be the front seems directed upward and to the right. The presence of the diagonal line makes the change more striking: in one position it runs from the left-hand rear upper corner to the right-hand front lower corner; while in the other it connects the left-hand front upper corner with the right-hand rear lower corner.

Fig. 15 will probably seem at first glimpse to be the view of a flight of steps which one is about to ascend from right to left. Imagine

Fig. 15a. Fig. 15b.
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Fig. 15.

Figs. 15, 15a, and 15b.—The two views of Fig. 15 described in the text are brought out more clearly in Figs. 15a and 15b. The shaded portion tends to be regarded as the nearer face. Fig. 15a is more apt to suggest the steps seen as we ascend them. Fig. 15b seems to represent the hollowed-out structure underneath the steps. But even with the shading the dual interpretation is possible, although less obvious.

it, however, to be a view of the under side of a series of steps; the view representing the structure of overhanging solid masonwork seen from underneath. At first it may be difficult to see it thus, because the view of steps which we are about to mount is a more natural and frequent experience than the other; but by staring at it with the intention of seeing it differently the transition will come, and often quite unexpectedly.

The blocks in Fig. 16 are subject to a marked fluctuation. Now the black surfaces represent the bottoms of the blocks, all pointing downward and to the left, and now the black surfaces have changed and have become the tops pointing upward and to the right. For some the changes come at will; for others they seem to come unexpectedly, but all are aided by anticipating mentally the nature of the transformation. The effect here is quite striking, the blocks seeming almost animated and moving through space. In Fig. 17 a similar arrangement serves to create an illusion as to the real number of blocks present. If viewed in one way—the black surface forming the tops of the blocks—there seem to be six arranged as in Fig. 18; but

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Fig. 16.—This interesting figure (which is reproduced with modifications from Scripture—The New Psychology) is subject in a striking way to interchanges between foreground and background. Most persons find it difficult to maintain for any considerable time either aspect of the blocks (these aspects are described in the text); some can change them at will, others must accept the changes as they happen to come.

when the transformation has taken place and the black surfaces have become the overhanging bottoms of the boxes, there are seven, arranged as in Fig. 19. Somewhat different, but still belonging to the group of ambiguous figures, is the ingenious conceit of the duck-rabbit shown in Fig. 20. When it is a rabbit, the face looks to the right and a pair of ears are conspicuous behind; when it is a duck, the face looks to the left and the ears have been changed into the bill. Most observers find it difficult to hold either interpretation steadily, the fluctuations being frequent, and coming as a surprise. All these diagrams serve to illustrate the principle that when the objective features are ambiguous we see one thing or another according to the impression that is in the mind's eye; what the objective factors lack in definiteness the subjective ones supply, while familiarity, prepossession, as well as other circumstances influence the result. These illustrations show conclusively that seeing is not wholly an objective matter depending upon what there is to be seen, but is very considerably a subjective matter depending upon the eye that sees. To the same observer a given arrangement of lines now appears as the representation of one object and now of another; and

Fig. 17a. Fig. 17b.
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Fig. 17.

Figs. 17, 17a, and 17b.—How many blocks are there in this pile? Six or seven? Note the change in arrangement of the blocks as they change in number from six to seven. This change is illustrated in the text. Figs. 17a and 17b show the two phases of a group of any three of the blocks. The arrangement of a pyramid of six blocks seems the more stable and is usually first suggested; but hold the page inverted, and you will probably see the alternate arrangement (with, however, the black surfaces still forming the tops). And once knowing what to look for, you will very likely be able to see either arrangement, whether the diagram be held inverted or not. This method of viewing the figures upside down and in other positions is also suggested to bring out the changes indicated in Figs. 13, 13a, 13b, and in Figs. 15, 15a, 15b.

from the same objective experience, especially in instances that demand a somewhat complicated exercise of the senses, different observers derive very different impressions.

Not only when the sense-impressions are ambiguous or defective, but when they are vague—when the light is dim or the forms obscure —does the mind's eye eke out the imperfections of physical vision. The vague conformations of drapery and make-up that are identified and recognized in spiritualistic séances illustrate extreme instances

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Fig. 18. Fig. 19.

of this process. The whitewashed tree or post that momentarily startles us in a dark country lane takes on the guise that expectancy gives it. The mental predisposition here becomes the dominant factor, and the timid see as ghosts what their more sturdy companions recognize as whitewashed posts. Such experiences we ascribe to the action of suggestion and the imagination—the cloud "that's almost in shape like a camel," or "like a weasel," or "like a whale." But throughout our visual experiences there runs this

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Fig. 20.—Do you see a duck or a rabbit, or either? (From Harper's Weekly, originally in Fliegende Blätter.)

double strain, now mainly outward and now mainly inward, from the simplest excitements of the retina up to the realms where fancy soars freed from the confines of sense, and the objective finds its occupation gone.

  1. In order to obtain the effects described in the various illustrations it is necessary in several cases to regard the figures for a considerable time and with close attention. The reader is requested not to give up in case the first attempt to secure the effect is not successful, but to continue the effort for a reasonable period. Individuals differ considerably in the readiness with which they obtain such effects; in some cases, such devices as holding the diagrams inverted or at an angle or viewing them with the eyes half closed are helpful.