Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Seeing the bigger picture

The first time I saw a 'magic-eye' picture was in July 1993. I was in the US attending a summer course at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (yes, I was into these things even back then...). Jurassic Park was showing at the movies, Take That were at number one in the UK with Pray (wonder whatever happened to those lads...?), and it was when the artist now known as Prince was wanting to be known as the artist formerly known as Prince (or a squiggle...).

It was my first time in America, and my 2 months there were almost up. I was walking through a shopping mall in Durham, North Carolina, on the look out for presents for the folks back home, leaving it till the last minute as usual. I wasn't having much luck finding suitably American souvenirs when my attention was caught by a stall in the centre of the mall. People were stood at the stall staring at unusual looking pieces of colourful artwork that were hung all around the stall. As I walked nearer, the colourful prints seemed to be made of patterns that repeated themselves over and over. The patterns themselves didn't seem especially eye-catching or aesthetically pleasing, but I was amazed at how the people stopped and gazed at these patterns for what seemed to be ages, as though transfixed by their beauty.

I carried on walking past, a little confused by these people's fascination with the pictures, as I continued my hunt for presents. I wasn't particularly successful in my present-buying mission, by the way. For example, I ended up buying my parents an "amusing" weather station that consisted of a block of wood to which was attached a stone hanging from a wire. From this is was possible to determine the weather for that day: if the stone was wet, it was raining; if the stone was swinging, it was windy. You get the idea. If the stone was gone completely, then you could conclude that it was a very windy day. Look, I thought it was funny and there's only so much you can buy for $10. To their credit, mum and dad did actually hang it up outside their home next to the front door so that visitors would be able to see it, so they must have thought it was kind of funny too (although they recently moved house and the weather station was left behind, so perhaps by then the joke was wearing thin).

Each time I walked past the stall selling the magic-eye posters, I couldn't believe that the same people were still stood there, gazing intently at these pictures! What was so good about them? Why were these people so enraptured by these rather garish and, to be honest, kind of tacky-looking pictures?

I edged towards the stall to take a closer look for myself, and noticed that there were instructions printed on a small sign next to some of the posters. These instructions explained that the patterns (created using a computer) contained hidden pictures that could only be seen if you looked at the poster in a certain way. Looking at the patterns in the usual way would not reveal the hidden pictures - all you would see would be the colourful patterns repeated again and again on the paper. In order to see the hidden pictures, you needed to look at the patterns in a very different way.

The printed sign instructed the viewer to relax the eyes and try to focus on a point beyond the paper on which the pattern was printed, rather than on the pattern itself. That is, you had to look through the poster. Now this of course is much easier said than done, which explains why so many people stood staring at these posters for 30 minutes or more at a time still only to walk away without seeing the hidden pictures and being none the wiser.

Fortunately, the owners of the stall did provide a very useful way of helping with the difficult task of looking "through" the posters. Some of the posters were framed, which meant they were also behind glass. This aided the viewer enormously as the glass allowed you to see your own reflection in the glass. This may not sound like much help but, believe me, it made the world of difference. By focusing on my reflection in the glass I was able to focus on a point beyond the surface of the poster, seeing as my reflection (as would yours) appeared as though it was the same distance behind the glass as I was in front of the glass. (So if you stand one metre in front of the glass, your reflection will appear as though it is one metre behind the glass. By the way, while we're on the subject, did you know that the size of the reflected image of your face on the glass itself, or on the surface of a mirror, is half the size of the actual size of your face? Did you also know that the size of the image remains the same no matter if you're right up close to the mirror, or standing on the other side of the room? Next time you're in the bathroom, trace the image of your face on the steamed up mirror and try it for yourself!)

So there I was, staring at my reflection in the glass with the hope that some hidden picture would magically appear before my eyes. It didn't. However, this was an important first step. The next step was to relax the eyes so that I was no longer focusing on my own reflection but I was still looking "through" the pattern. (For more details about how to see magic-eye pictures you could do a lot worse than following this link.)

The poster that I was slowly going cross-eyed at was called Lady Liberty. I could see my reflection in the glass, and I even managed to relax my eyes in such a way that I wasn't focusing on my reflection but I was still looking through the pattern. But could I see anything in the blue-green patterns that would justify the title Lady Liberty? Not a thing. Perhaps I was trying too hard?

Then, after about half an hour of staring deeply into the patterns it happened. It was as though something clicked into place. The patterns that were there on the poster suddenly seemed to take on a whole new form! I could now see shapes that I couldn't see before, shapes that simply weren't there before. And then it made sense... I could now see where the title Lady Liberty came from. In the centre of the poster, as if it had appeared from nowhere, I could now see the clear outline of the Statue of Liberty with her hand held high above her head holding a burning torch. The repeating blue-green patterns were still there. It wasn't that they had suddenly disappeared to be replaced by a photographic image of the Statue of Liberty in glorious technicolour. No the patterns were still there, it's just that they now seemed to form into another pattern that depicted the Statue of Liberty. There was also a 3D effect whereby the New York skyline behind Lady Liberty herself seemed to appear deeper within the picture in such a way that when I moved my head from side to side, the position of the statue moved in front of the skyline.

I was deeply impressed. I bought it, thinking I may give it to my brother as a present from my first trip to the USA. (I knew of course that I was going to keep it for myself.. in fact I'm not sure I ended up getting my brother anything. Hey ho.) Once I got back to the UK, I was eager to show my parents, my dad especially, this amazing picture. Remember, this was 1993 and these things hadn't made it into the shops in England by then, so I felt like I was almost showing them something on a par with colour TV for the first time! My parents' house had a large serving hatch type thing between the kitchen and dining room, which had two large sliding panes of glass. Perfect for the viewing of magic-eye pictures I thought.

With the help of my dad, I carefully slid Lady Liberty between the two panes of glass so that the blue-green pattern could be viewed behind glass when stood in the kitchen. I then explained that the image of the Statue of Liberty would appear magically if you stood and gazed at your reflection in the glass, relaxed your eyes, and so on. Of course, it took some time but eventually they saw it. My mum saw it first, but I don't think she was that impressed by it (or at least not as impressed as I thought she should be!). My dad took a lot longer. By the time he saw it, my mum and I had got rather bored of staring into the picture, and had moved ourselves into the living room and were watching something suitably high-brow on TV (Bullseye I think it was). We had actually forgotten about my dad in the kitchen who, bless him, was still gazing into the blue-green yonder.

Then, all of a sudden, "Oh, I see it... Amazing!". He seemed impressed. I was pleased. It's nice when you can give people pleasurable little experiences like that. Especially your own parents.

Now I know what you're thinking. Why on earth am I telling you this story about the first magic-eye picture I saw? Well, I guess I'm telling you for a number of reasons, but the main reason at this point is because part of me wonders whether seeing magic-eye pictures is in some way analogous to how we view the world around us (an idea inspired by my friend and colleague, Carl Williams, who I first heard suggest this at a conference back in 1995).

If you look at a magic-eye picture in the usual way, you will just see random-looking patterns that don't really make much sense. They may be pretty or colourful but that's as far as it goes. However, if you look at the patterns in a very different way... if you're able to change the way you think about the patterns, and view them from a very different perspective, then you see the bigger picture. From this new perspective, the patterns suddenly makes sense, and the picture that was at first hidden is now revealed. It's also interesting (or at least it is to me!) that some people find it relatively easy to see the hidden pictures, while others have real difficulties in seeing them. Magic-eye pictures are based on stereograms and so binocular vision (i.e., two working eyes) are needed to see them. However, even people with 20-20 vision sometimes find it hard to relax their eyes, and their minds, sufficiently to allow the picture to come into view.

Perhaps the way in which we view the world is a bit like this? Maybe it requires a fairly fundamental shift in perspective from our "normal" way of thinking about things to see the bigger picture. Maybe we need to be able to "relax our minds" in a certain way to see through the random-looking patterns of daily life and get a deeper understanding of what's there.

Or maybe not. Either way, it's a great feeling when you get that "Oh, I see it!" moment. And it's even better when you hear your dad get it.

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