Can perceptual illusions teach us tolerance?

Travis DixonGeneral Interest

Understanding that people can see and hear the world in a completely different way to ourselves made me think about tolerance and beliefs (Image: Flickr, Matt Hendrich).

Warning: This post is me rambling and thinking out-loud.

  • “I don’t know how on Earth you can see a black and blue dress, when that’s clearly white and gold.”
  • “Are you mad. What? What? You’re messing with me, right? They’re definitely grey and blue sneakers. Where the heck are you seeing pink and white?”

These were some of the things I found myself saying last week as I discovered the common optical and auditory illusions doing the rounds of the online news at the moment. I was three years behind #thedress apparently, but that’s not surprising since I just joined twitter this week (@themantic_trav btw )

#thedress has apparently inspired dozens of studies to try to explain differences in perception that people see. And then last year a pair of sneakers appeared to have the same effect – while most people see teal and grey, some see pink and white.


It is wonderfully bizarre how people can see the same image in completely different ways. I think there’s a lot to be learned about tolerance from this perceptual phenomenon.

But I wanted to test this for myself, so as a break from exam revision I gave all my students a mini-whiteboard and projected the pictures and asked them to write what they saw. Previously, I had only talked about the illusions with a couple of colleagues, so I was intrigued to see just how split the opinion was (of course, I only projected the original image, not the doctored ones included in this blog).

To my amazement, about 1/3 saw the complete opposite to me: a blue/back dress and pink/white sneakers.

But I think the most amazing one is the laurel/yanni debate (read more and listen for yourself at The Guardian here). Apparently this is closer to a 50/50 split and so it was in my class, too. Half hear yanni the other half hear laurel.

I won’t lie. I began freaking out a little in class. I’ve seen plenty of optical illusions to be OK with the fact that people can see different things – but how can we hear completely different words? I found it so difficult to comprehend that people were actually hearing something different to me, when the sound was the same, right there for all! I almost couldn’t completely shake the idea that they were messing around and playing some sort of elaborate joke.

It then got me thinking about how some people have completely different viewpoints, opinions and beliefs to our own that we find so hard to understand. Quite honestly, I find it surprising that most adults believe in heaven or that some biologists can believe in creationism. With all the progress and scientific discoveries we’ve made, how can people still believe this?

How can we be seeing the same world but perceiving it so differently?

But they do. And if you do, I can’t see what you see. I can’t hear what you hear. We could stand together in a forest as the sunlight breaks through the leaves and hits a stream and you’d say, “Isn’t God great?” and I’d say, “I don’t know, but isn’t Nature beautiful?”

This is what these illusions got me thinking about, especially as modern media appears to be dividing people along more lines than ever before – whether it’s politics, gender, religion, race, or whatever, the ability to understand, comprehend or even tolerate a different viewpoint seems to be slipping.

Do I have to convince you that Nature is beautiful? Must you convince me that  your God is great? Is it possible to enjoy the same thing and tolerate diverse explanations for it? I’m just thinking out loud, really.

The best example I’ve seen of this divide was in a very recent debate about political correctness featuring Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry debating with Michael Dyson and Michelle Goldberg. If you have a couple of hours (or one at double speed), give it a watch (here) and you’re anything like me you’ll be as frustrated as Fry – none of the other panelists so much as mentioned the topic of the debate – “what you call PC I call progress.” They brought with them all their baggage and their preconceived notions of the “other” and nowhere did they even venture into making a cogent point about the topic, nor did they try to understand the perspective of their opponent, engage with it and try to debate it – it was very bizarre, and often very difficult and annoying to listen to.

I felt Fry’s closing remarks showed his class and he came across a bit like a schoolmaster scolding naughty children for not staying on task. I think in that moment he missed Christopher Hitchins.

But it highlights what I’ve talked about in previous posts – if someone holds what we think to be an abhorrent opinion, aren’t we better to try to understand why that person thinks and feels that way, rather than trying to dismiss and label them as ignorant or bigoted? If neo-Nazi’s suddenly started growing in numbers in my community and holding rallies, I’d like to think that my first approach wouldn’t be to protest – it would be to meet the individuals and understand why they think that way. Why are they hearing Laurel, when I’m hearing Yanni? How is their lived experience so different to mine that we can look at the same problem and see two different explanations?

But is it that simple? Would it be that easy? Would it be possible for me to ever see a pink and white sneaker? Do we need to tolerate everyone’s beliefs? I couldn’t imagine living in a time or place where sacrificing children was an acceptable way to appease a God, or where it’s acceptable for a young girl reporting a rape to be stoned to death in front of a stadium filled with people. I couldn’t imagine feeling good about tolerating such beliefs, let alone holding them. So aren’t there times we can say undeniably that the perspectives and beliefs of others are just wrong, plain and simple? Does tolerance also have a line in the sand that must be drawn somewhere? Or can we not judge others by our own cultural and moral yardsticks?

Could we both be right – is the recording really saying Laurel or Yanni, depending on how you hear it, or is one of us wrong?

I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. But I was pleased that these illusions raised the questions. They’ve helped me learn that people do see and hear the world in completely different ways and often times in a way that I simply cannot comprehend. Maybe doing this activity in class helped some students understand this, too. Perhaps the lesson is that even if we can’t understand or even tolerate the perspectives, opinions and beliefs of others, we might not have to accept them, but we do have to listen to them, for that is their reality. Shutting down and shutting out others will only increase divides, and in my anecdotal observations of extremists converts, it’s the shared experiences with their loathed other that have softened and changed their views.

And now I think about it, when I asked students to point out where they saw the different colours, I really tried to see what they saw. When they started sounding out “laurel” along with the recording, I really tried to hear what they were hearing. Perhaps that’s what these illusions can teach us about tolerance – they can open our minds to the idea of concrete, perceptual and maybe inexplicable differences and encourage us to listen more, and at least try to see what the other sees. Harper Lee knew this along time ago when she wrote the character of Atticus Finch, who famously told his daughter, Scout, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Or more recently, it was Pixar’s Andrew Stanton who said in his brilliant TED Talk, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” In order to hear, we need to listen. With so many modern mediums for everyone to tell their own story, it seems listening is becoming harder and harder. Perhaps these fun little illusions could help.

Or I could just use my great psychology teacher cop-out – “these are great discussions for your TOK class.”