Limits to the imagination

Is it a chair or are we just imagining a chair?

The Ames chair illusion: 3 peepholes through which the viewer looks with one eye at 3 objects displayed in the distance. Each looks like a chair (top row).

But of the actual objects (bottom row), only one is a normally-shaped chair. The one on the right is very distorted and only looks like a chair from one angle. The miiddle oneis just wires in front of a backdrop that has a white shape painted on. Even when the viewer knows about the real objects, the 3 peepholes seem to show 3 chairs.

Gombrich comments:

“the illusion consists…in the conviction that there is only one way of interpreting the visual pattern in front of us. We are blind to other possible configurations because we literally ‘cannot imagine’ these unlikely objects. They have no name and no habitation in the universe of our experience.

‘perceptions are not disclosures’

(from Gombrich “Art & Illusion”, 1959, p. 210-1)

The example illustrates the inherent ambiguity of all images and also reminds us of the reasons why we are so rarely aware of them. Ambiguity…can never be seen as such. We notice it only by learning to switch from one reading to another and by realizing that both interpretations fit the image equally well.”

And empathy? our imagining of the world of the Other is similarly limited to what we can conceive about what we perceive. If aspects of the Other’s world have “no name and no habitation in the universe of our experience”, we cannot imagine them. Our empathy is limited by our experience.


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