Everyone is familiar with the phrase, “seeing is believing.” But sometimes the things we see can totally throw us off, make us do a double-take or leave us speechless. No, I’m not talking about scenes from Real Housewives. I’m referring to those times when our senses (see, hear, feel, smell, taste) trick us.
Is Seeing Always Believing?
Perhaps you can relate to some of the ways I’ve been tricked like driving on the freeway and seeing the mirage effect where hot an cool air mixing makes it look like water on the road ahead. Just the other day my older kids were holding their noses and complaining that the baby’s poopy diaper got left in a trash can somewhere. There was no diaper. It was actually broccoli cooking in the kitchen. Or maybe one time you’ve reached into a bag looking for chapstick–feeling what you thought was Burt’s Bees Pomegranate but pulled out a short blue marker with the lid off.
These types of experiences raise the question of just how much can we trust from our senses. It’s tempting to think that when we are fooled, we quickly realize our silly mistake. But how many times are we unaware of the bad conclusions we draw from what we see or hear? Do we really have a good idea of this?
Wrongful Convictions Based on Positive Identification
Wrongful criminal convictions illustrate how overconfidence in what we think we see can create tragedy. The Innocence Project, an organization that seeks to help the wrongfully convicted, reports from their data that eyewitness misidentifications contributed to 72% of the 318 wrongful convictions that were eventually overturned by DNA evidence. This percentage is astonishing. The harm of these wrongful convictions is huge. Not only does the innocent person waste precious years of their life in prison, the real criminal is free to potentially commit more crimes. Of the 318 convictions cited, 98 additional violent crimes were committed by the criminals missed due to convicting the wrong person.
Another study cites four specific factors that influence an eyewitness’s viewing conditions which include total time the person saw the face, delay in fully registering the face, how hard they paid attention to detail of the face and if there were other distractions such as a gun. Additionally, there is positive correlation between age of the witness and false identification of new faces. All of this means that just because we “see” a face doesn’t mean we capture an accurate representation in our mind or keep a precise memory.
Descartes Didn’t Always Believe What He Saw
In 1641 René Descartes decided that he wanted to find out what he could know with absolute certainty when he wrote his Meditations on First Philosophy. He had similar concerns about what he could trust from his senses. Here are some excerpts you can read and discuss with your kids:
All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.
- What is he saying in this paragraph? (He doesn’t want to put full confidence in information from the senses because they have occassionally misled him).
- Is it possible for us to live and not trust our senses? How important are the senses in our day to day lives?
…yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature.
- What is he trying to figure out with the above statement? (if there are some things from the senses that cannot be doubted)
- What’s your opinion? Are there things that we can experience from the senses that are impossible to doubt? Do you think his example of sitting in your pajamas and holding a piece of paper and feeling the warmth of the fire is something you can be certain of?
For more to discuss and explore with you kids on Descartes’ Meditations, check out the study plan: Are You For Real!?
The Ames Window Is Freaky
The Ames window is a pretty impressive illusion and is a fun project to do with your kids. It’s a great demonstration of how our interpretation of what we see can be influenced by what we expect to see. In this video you can watch our experience building the Ames window.
The illusion is made from a flat piece of cardboard that resembles a rectangle window but is really a trapazoid which gives it some depth perspective. A wire is placed at the bottom middle of the window which allows it to rotate 360 degrees. While the window is rotating, the illusion is that it appears to go to one side, momentarily stop and then reverse course. Our eyes see what is happening but our brain mis-interprets the window to be oscillating.
For most illusions, once you understad how it works, you can adapt your brain to see what’s really happening. You can see past the illusion. The really fun part of the Ames window illusion is that it’s really hard to train your brain to unsee it. At least this was the experience for me and my kids. Even after we were told that it was fully rotating, and we could see the added perspective of someone’s hand turning it without stoping, we still saw it going back and forth.
Create The Illusion Yourself!
We had a lot of fun making this illusion and our video above gives you some instructions for you kids to make it as well. It took some trial and error to get it work though–more than we expected. Initially I measured, cut-out and shaded the trapezoidal window from just a regular piece of brown cardboard taken from a box. For some reason it didn’t work. We saw the window turning fully around and it was clear when the smaller side was near us and vice versa. I don’t know if it was the angles, the brown coloring of the cardboard or my bad freehand shading on the window panes. My hunch is that the cardboard was too thick and the fatter edges gave it away as they passed in front of our eyes.
Finally we figured it out by using a pattern created on a computer and printed onto heavy cardstock. We want to share it with you:
Here is the pattern we made that you can use:
You’ll need the following: printed trapezoid pattern, plastic straw (you can also tightly roll some paper as an alternative), wire hanger, stapler, glue stick.
- Print the pattern on heavy white cardstock. Cardstock will have better results as it will hold it’s shape better than regular printer paper.
- Cut along the outside lines with scissors but make sure the two trapezoid’s remain attached at the spine on the far left side.
- Staple an end of the staw together. This is to make the straw flat so that it sticks between the two trapezoids.
- With a glue stick (tape can work too) apply glue to the back of the bottom trapezoid.
- Fold the top trapezoid over onto the bottom while placing the flat side of the straw between the two at the bottom middle.
- Take a wire hanger and re-twist it to create a circlular base then extending up from the middle at least a foot.
- After the glue dries, the straw in the trapezoid can be placed onto the hanger. Bend the hanger so that the trapezoid is as straight and level as possible.
- Now you are ready for the illusion. To see it best, have someone hold the hanger from the base a few feet away from you. Make sure your line of sight is level with the trapezoid. Have the other person slowly turn the base of the hanger 360 degrees around while you watch with one closed eye.
Did you see the illusion? It helped for us to make a video and replay it. How hard was it for you to ‘unsee’ the illusion once you saw it? Did you eventually reorient your brain to follow one side of the trapezoid all the way around?
How Does The Window Relate To Wrongful Convictions?
A theory around the Ames window is that the viewer’s mental expectation affects the actual perceptions in the brain which determine the conclusions we make. Our expectations of a window are:
- Hinged on one side and swings open.
- Doesn’t spin 360 degrees.
- Is rectangular
- The near side is longer than the far side.
Each of these expectations set us up to see this illusion. And much like these expectations, eyewitness misidentifications are often made by people who were absolutely certain they pointed to the guilty person. But science has shown that what we see and remember are often tainted or obscured by our biases and other quick shortcuts that our brains have evolved to make. So what kind of confidence does this give us in what we see and hear? What do you think Descartes would say? I think he’d like the Ames window but I bet he’d mumble a few curse words under his breath in French.
Note: Our inspiration for the Ames window goes to the wonderful Curiousity Show.