The subtleties of perception

An autostereogram. Can you see the shark? Image source: Wikipedia.

The other day I was thinking about those old autostereograms: pictures of apparent random dots that, when looked at in just the right way, make a 3-dimensional image jump out at you. I have never been good at that, but the key seems to be to not focus on the dots. It requires a certain ‘way of seeing’ that transcends analytical effort. Indeed, any effort at analyzing the picture ensures that you will not be able to see the 3D image, even though it’s there right under your nose all the time.

Sometimes I wonder if autostereograms aren't excellent metaphors of reality. How much of reality are we capable to see with our regular, highly analytical way of seeing? How much do we miss? How much can there be right under our noses, but which we never see or even intuit in our daily lives? After all, if the metaphor is valid, the more we try – in the sense of making a goal-driven effort – the more difficult it becomes to see. Is there a trick to see more of reality, just like there seem to be tricks to see autostereograms? And if there is, what is the meaning and significance of what we would then perceive?

I have asked myself these questions since my early adolescence. Because I have – or so I believe – a particularly hardened analytical mind, answering these questions to my own satisfaction has always been a difficult – often frustrating – exercise for me. But over the years I have had some successes. I have succeeded in allowing – fleetingly, as it may have been the case – a natural change in my way of seeing through a temporary disruption of the analytical mechanisms that are so much a part of my ordinary perception. What then became clear to me, springing up into my cognitive field as a self-evident and eternal reality, is what is described in my book Dreamed up Reality.


  1. I find autostereograms interesting too. Unlike you, I am quite good at seeing the 3D figures. Also, I think you and I diverge in our interpretation. In my opinion, being able to see them depends on how you've trained your visual system to interpret 3D. Obviously, the scenes from the two eyes have to be integrated (in some non-linear fashion) to infer 3D form. How the brain does that is an interesting question. I don't think we have the full answer yet, but we're getting there.

  2. My intent was to use autostereograms just as a metaphor. I believe their mechanisms are actually well understood (each eyes focuses on a different patt of the image, creating the 3D illusion).