ILLUSIONS OF DEPTH AND OF DISTANCEby@matthewluckiesh

# ILLUSIONS OF DEPTH AND OF DISTANCE

April 17th, 2023

Besides the so-called geometrical illusions discussed in the preceding chapters, there is an interesting group in which the perception of the third dimension is in error. When any of the ordinary criteria of relief or of distance are apparently modified, illusions of this kind are possible. There are many illusions of this sort, such as the looming of objects in a fog; the apparent enlargement of the sun and moon near the horizon; the flattening of the “vault” of the sky; the intaglio seen as relief; the alteration of relief with lighting; and various changes in the landscape when regarded with the head inverted.

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## VII. ILLUSIONS OF DEPTH AND OF DISTANCE

Besides the so-called geometrical illusions discussed in the preceding chapters, there is an interesting group in which the perception of the third dimension is in error. When any of the ordinary criteria of relief or of distance are apparently modified, illusions of this kind are possible. There are many illusions of this sort, such as the looming of objects in a fog; the apparent enlargement of the sun and moon near the horizon; the flattening of the “vault” of the sky; the intaglio seen as relief; the alteration of relief with lighting; and various changes in the landscape when regarded with the head inverted.

Although some of the criteria for the perception of depth or of distance have already been pointed out, especially in Chapter III, these will be mentioned again. Distance or depth is indicated by the distribution of light and shade, and an unusual object like an intaglio is likely to be mistaken for relief which is more common. An analysis of the lighting will usually reveal the real form of the object. (See Figs. 7071727376 and 77.) In this connection it is interesting to compare photographic negatives with their corresponding positive prints.

Distance is often estimated by the definition and color of objects seen through great depths of[Pg 103] air (aerial perspective). These distant objects are “blurred” by the irregular refraction of the light-rays through non-homogeneous atmosphere. They are obscured to some degree by the veil of brightness due to the illuminated dust, smoke, etc., in the atmosphere. They are also tinted (apparently) by the superposition of a tinted atmosphere. Thus we have “dim distance,” “blue peaks,” “azure depths of sky,” etc., represented in photographs, paintings, and writings. Incidentally, the sky above is blue for the same general reasons that the atmosphere, intervening between the observer and a distant horizon, is bluish. The ludicrous errors made in estimating distances in such regions as the Rockies is usually accounted for by the rare clearness and homogeneity of the atmosphere. However, is the latter a full explanation? To some extent we judge unknown size by estimated distance, and unknown distance by estimated size. When a person is viewing a great mountain peak for the first time, is he not likely to assume it to be comparable in size to the hills with which he has been familiar? Even by allowing considerable, is he not likely to greatly underestimate the size of the mountain and, as a direct consequence, to underestimate the distance proportionately? This incorrect judgment would naturally be facilitated by the absence of “dimness” and “blueness” due to the atmospheric haze.

Angular perspective, which apparently varies the forms of angles and produces the divergence of lines, contributes much information in regard to relative and absolute distances from the eye of the various[Pg 104] objects or the parts of an object. For example, a rectangle may appear as a rhomboid. It is obvious that certain data pertaining to the objects viewed must be assumed, and if the assumptions are incorrect, illusions will result. These judgments also involve, as most judgments do, other data external to the objects viewed. Perhaps these incorrect judgments are delusions rather than illusions, because visual perception has been deluded by misinformation supplied by the intellect.

Size or linear perspective is a factor in the perception of depth or of distance. As has been stated, if we know the size experience determines the distance; and conversely, if we know the distance we may estimate the size. Obviously estimates are involved and these when incorrect lead to false perception or interpretation.

As an object approaches, the axes of the eyes converge more and more and the eye-lens must be thickened more and more to keep the object in focus. As stated in Chapter III, we have learned to interpret these accompanying sensations of muscular adjustment. This may be demonstrated by holding an object at an arm’s length and then bringing it rapidly toward the eyes, keeping it in focus all the time. The sensations of convergence and accommodation are quite intense.

The two eyes look at a scene from two different points of view respectively and their images do not perfectly agree, as has been shown in Figs. 2 and 3. This binocular disparity is responsible to some degree for the perception of depth, as the stereoscope has[Pg 105] demonstrated. If two spheres of the same size are suspended on invisible strings, one at six feet, the other at seven feet away, one eye sees the two balls in the same plane, but one appears larger than the other. With binocular vision the balls appear at different distances, but judgment appraises them as of approximately equal size. At that distance the focal adjustment is not much different for both balls, so that the muscular movement, due to focusing the eye, plays a small part in the estimation of the relative distance. Binocular disparity and convergence are the primary factors.

Some have held that the perception of depth, that is, of a relative distance, arises from the process of unconsciously running the point of sight back and forth. However, this view, unmodified, appears untenable when it is considered that a scene illuminated by a lightning flash (of the order of magnitude of a thousandth of a second) is seen even in this brief moment to have depth. Objects are seen in relief, in actual relation as to distance and in normal perspective, even under the extremely brief illumination of an electric spark (of the order of magnitude of one twenty-thousandth of a second). This can also be demonstrated by viewing stereoscopic pictures with a stereoscope, the illumination being furnished by an electric spark. Under these circumstances relief and perspective are quite satisfactory. Surely in these brief intervals the point of sight cannot do much surveying of a scene.

Parallax aids in the perception of depth or distance. If the head be moved laterally the view or[Pg 106] scene changes slightly. Objects or portions of objects previously hidden by others may now become visible. Objects at various distances appear to move nearer or further apart. We have come to interpret these apparent movements of objects in a scene in terms of relative distances; that is, the relative amount of parallactic displacement is a measure of the relative distances of the objects.

The relative distances or depth locations of different parts of an object can be perceived as fluctuating or even reversing. This is due to fluctuations in attention, and illusions of reversible perspective are of this class. It is quite impossible for one to fix his attention in perfect continuity upon any object. There are many involuntary eye-movements which cannot be overcome and under normal conditions certain details are likely to occupy the focus of attention alternately or successively. This applies equally well to the auditory sense and perhaps to the other senses. Emotional coloring has much to do with the fixation of attention; that which we admire, desire, love, hate, etc., is likely to dwell more in the focus of attention than that which stirs our emotions less.

A slight suggestion of forward and backward movements can be produced by successively intercepting the vision of one eye by an opaque card or other convenient object. It has been suggested that the illusion is due to the consequent variations in the tension of convergence. Third dimensional movements may be produced for binocular or monocular vision during eye-closure. They are also produced by opening the eyes as widely as possible, by pressure on[Pg 107] the eye-balls, and by stressing the eyelids. However, these are not important and are merely mentioned in passing.

An increase in the brightness of an object is accompanied by an apparent movement toward the observer, and conversely a decrease in brightness produces an apparent movement in the opposite direction. These effects may be witnessed upon viewing the glowing end of a cigar which is being smoked by some one a few yards away in the darkness. Rapidly moving thin clouds may produce such an effect by varying the brightness of the moon. Some peculiar impressions of this nature may be felt while watching the flashing light of some light-houses or of other signaling stations. It has been suggested that we naturally appraise brighter objects as nearer than objects less bright. However, is it not interesting to attribute the apparent movement to irradiation? (See Chapter VIII.) A bright object appears larger than a dark object of the same size and at the same distance. When the same object varies in brightness it remains in consciousness the same object and therefore of constant size; however, the apparent increase in size as it becomes brighter must be accounted for in some manner and there is only one way open. It must be attributed a lesser distance than formerly and therefore the sudden increase in brightness mediates a consciousness of a movement forward, that is, toward the observer.

If two similar objects, such as the points of a compass, are viewed binocularly and their lateral distance apart is altered, the observer is conscious of[Pg 108] a third dimensional movement. Inasmuch as the accommodation is unaltered but convergence must be varied as the lateral distance between the two, the explanation of the illusion must consider the latter. The pair of compass-points are very convenient for making a demonstration of this pronounced illusion. The relation of size and distance easily accounts for the illusion.

Obviously this type of illusion cannot be illustrated effectively by means of diagrams, so the reader must be content to watch for them himself. Some persons are able voluntarily to produce illusory movements in the third dimension, but such persons are rare. Many persons have experienced involuntary illusions of depth. Carr found, in a series of classes comprising 350 students, 58 persons who had experienced involuntary depth illusions at some time in their lives. Five of these also possessed complete voluntary control over the phenomenon. The circumstances attending visual illusions of depth are not the same for various cases, and the illusions vary widely in their features.

Like other phases of the subject, this has been treated in many papers, but of these only one will be specifically mentioned, for it will suffice. Carr[3] has studied this type of illusion comparatively recently and apparently quite generally, and his work will be drawn upon for examples of this type. Apparently they may be divided into four classes: (1) Those of pure distance; that is, an object may appear to be located at varying distances from the observer, but no movement is perceived. For example, a person[Pg 109] might be seen first at the true distance; he might be seen next very close in front of the eyes; then he might suddenly appear to be quite remote; (2) illusions of pure motion; that is, objects are perceived as moving in a certain direction without any apparent change in location. In other words, they appear to move, but they do not appear to traverse space; (3) illusions of movement which include a change in location. This appears to be the most common illusion of depth; (4) those including a combination of the first and third classes. For example, the object might first appear to move away from its true location and is perceived at some remote place. Shortly it may appear in its true original position, but this change in location does not involve any sense of motion.

These peculiar illusions of depth are not as generally experienced as those described in preceding chapters. A geometrical illusion, especially if it is pronounced, is likely to be perceived quite universally, but these illusions of depth are either more difficult to notice or more dependent upon psychological peculiarities far from universal among people. It is interesting to note the percentages computed from Carr’s statistics obtained upon interrogating 350 students. Of these, 17 per cent had experienced depth-illusions and between one and two per cent had voluntary control of the phenomenon. Of the 48 who had experienced illusions of this type and were able to submit detailed descriptions, 25 per cent belonged to class (1) of those described in the preceding paragraph; 4 per cent to class (2); 52 per cent to class (3); and 17 per cent to class (4).

[Pg 110]Usually the illusion involves all objects in the visual field but with some subjects the field is contracted or the objects in the periphery of the field are unaffected. For most persons these illusions involve normal perceptual objects, although it appears that they are phases of hallucinatory origin.

Inasmuch as these illusions cannot be illustrated diagrammatically we can do no better than to condense some of the descriptions obtained and reported by Carr.

A case in which the peripheral objects remain visible and stationary at their true positions while the central portion of the field participates in the illusion is as follows:

The observer on a clear day was gazing down a street which ended a block away, a row of houses forming the background at the end of the street. The observer was talking to and looking directly at a companion only a short distance away. Soon this person (apparently) began to move down the street, until she reached the background of houses at the end, and then slowly came back to her original position. The movement in both directions was distinctly perceived. During the illusory movement there was no vagueness of outline or contour, no blurring or confusion of features; the person observed, seemed distinct and substantial in character during the illusion. The perceived object moved in relation to surrounding objects; there was no movement of the visual field as a whole. The person decreased in size during the backward movement and increased in size during the forward return movement.

With many persons who experience illusions of depth, the objects appear to move to, or appear at, some definite position and remain there until the illusion is voluntarily overcome, or until it disappears without voluntary action. A condensation of a typical[Pg 111] description of this general type presented by Carr is as follows:

All visual objects suddenly recede to the apparent distance of the horizon and remain in that position several minutes, returning at the end of this period to their original positions. This return movement is very slow at the beginning, but the latter phase of the movement is quite rapid. If the subject closes her eyes while the objects appear at their distant position she cannot even imagine those objects located anywhere except at their apparent distant position.

In all cases (encountered by Carr) the motion in both directions is an actual experience reality and the subject was helpless as to initiating, stopping, or modifying the course of the illusion in any way. Objects and even visual images (which are subject to the same illusions) decrease in size in proportion to the amount of backward movement and grow larger again on their return movement. The objects are always clearly defined as if in good focus. In this particular case the illusion occurred about twice a year, under a variety of conditions of illumination, at various times of the day, but apparently under conditions of a rather pronounced fatigue.

In regard to the variation in the size of objects, many who have experienced these illusions of depth testify that the size seems to change in proportion to the apparent distance, according to the law of perspective. Some persons appear in doubt as to this change and a few have experienced the peculiar anomaly of decreasing size as the objects apparently approached.

Many persons who have experienced these peculiar illusions report no change in the distinctness of objects; almost as many are uncertain regarding this point; and as many report a change in distinctness. Apparently there are phases of hallucinatory origin[Pg 112] so that there is a wide variety of experiences among those subject to this type of illusion.

According to Carr’s investigation internal conditions alone are responsible for the illusion with more persons than those due to external conditions alone. With some persons a combination of internal and external conditions seem to be a necessity. Fixation of vision appears to be an essential objective condition for many observers. That is, the illusion appeared while fixating a speaker or singer in a church or a theater. With others the illusion occurs while reading. Some reported that fixation upon checkered or other regularly patterned objects was an essential condition. Among the subjective conditions reported as essential are steady fixation, concentration of attention, complete mental absorption, dreamy mental abstraction, and fatigue.

Ocular defects do not appear to be essential, for the illusions have been experienced by many whose eyes were known to be free from any abnormalities.

Period of life does not appear to have any primary influence, for those who are subject to these peculiar illusions often have experienced them throughout many years. In some cases it is evident that the illusions occur during a constrained eye position, while lying down, immediately upon arising from bed in the morning, and upon opening the eyes after having had them closed for some time. However, the necessity for these conditions are exceptional.

The control of these illusions of depth, that is, the ability to create or to destroy them, appears to be totally lacking for most of those who have [Pg 113]experienced them. Some can influence them, a few can destroy them, a few can indirectly initiate them, but those who can both create and destroy them appear to be rare.

It may seem to the reader that the latter part of this chapter departs from the main trend of this book, for most of these illusions of depth are to a degree of hallucinatory origin. Furthermore it has been the intention to discuss only those types of illusions which are experienced quite uniformly and universally. The digression of this chapter is excused on the basis of affording a glimpse along the borderland of those groups of illusions which are nearly universally experienced. Many other phases of depth illusions have been recorded in scientific literature. The excellent records presented by Carr could be drawn upon for further glimpses, but it appears that no more space should be given to this exceptional type. The reader should be sufficiently forewarned of this type and should be able to take it into account if peculiarities in other types appear to be explainable in this manner. However, in closing it is well to emphasize the fact that the hallucinatory aspect of depth illusions is practically absent in types of illusions to which attention is confined in other chapters.

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This book is part of the public domain. Matthew Luckiesh (2011). Visual Illusions: Their Causes, Characteristics and Applications. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022 https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/36297/pg36297-images.html

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