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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Attempts to explain how visual illusions work date back to the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle, for instance, was the first to describe the waterfall illusion: focusing on moving water causes stationary objects, like rocks, to appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Illusions may seem like a glitch in our brain, but they actually help us draw useful conclusions on how perception works.

While there is no universal explanation for why optical illusions happen, studies suggest that our frontal lobe, where higher-level thinking and decision-making happens, may be involved in misapplying existing knowledge. Why does our brain make unconscious inferences then? Our bodies are incapable of processing all the information we are bombarded with daily. In addition, our vision lags: When light reaches the retina milliseconds pass before the information is translated into a visual perception. Prediction mechanisms have evolved to compensate for neural delays and help us to perform time-critical motor actions, such as catching a ball.

A philosophical and more thought-provoking question: could realizing that even physiological processes are heavily influenced by the environment help us become more empathetic towards those we disagree with? As we have seen with our vision, we like to predict reality based on prior experiences, but perhaps with more complicated processes, like political views or stances regarding climate change, too.

Mirlinda Ademi is a third year PhD student in Clinical Neurosciences at Corpus Christi College.