Optical illusions can be fun games. It's an old lady! It's a young woman! Old lady! Young woman! Both! Neither! But they have been used for medical treatment purposes. And it's also been postulated that they may have played a role in causing one of the greatest disasters in recent history.
Phantom limb pain is the sensation of pain in a body part that has been amputated and no longer exists. While doctors have tried to treat this phantom pain with medicine, physical therapy and even surgery, some of the most successful treatments have been with what is essentially an optical illusion [source: Kim]. For this brain trickery to work, doctors have patients place their existing limb – for example, their right arm – on the reflecting side of a mirror, and their brain is fooled into believing the illusion that the reflection of their existing arm is actually their amputated left arm. While the patient understands this not to be true, the brain is tricked into thinking the arm has returned. The pain often disappears after multiple sessions playing with this mirror treatment [source: NPR].
As much as this optical illusion has helped amputees, illusions may also have been responsible for causing some harm to folks as well. Historians have postulated that the sinking of the Titanic may have actually been the result of an optical illusion at play. The atmospheric conditions on the evening that the ship sank were ripe for super-refraction or the extreme bending of light. This light bending may have caused the iceberg with which the ship collided to visually disappear from sight. Not only that, but after the collision, the Titanicitself may have the victim of this light-bending, making it hidden from the sight of the nearby freighter, the Californian, which should have been able to come to its rescue [source: Smithsonian.com].
Author's Note: How Optical Illusions Work
Researching for this article just confirmed to me that I could stare at an M.C. Escher drawing for hours and still never be able to figure it out. I guess that's the point!
More Great Links
- Alter, Adam. "Are these lines the same height? The answer depends on where you're from." Popular Science. March 20 2013. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-03/are-these-walls-the-same-size-your-answer-depends-on-where-youre-from
- Clark, Josh. "10 Neat Optical Illusions – And How They Work." Stuff You Should Know. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/blog/gallery/10-neat-optical-illusions-work/
- Dahl, Melissa. "The Psychology of 'Cannot Unsee': Once You've Seen an Optical Illusion's Reveal, Why Can't You Stop Seeing It?" New York Magazine. July 25, 2016. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/07/the-psychological-appeal-of-those-viral-optical-illusions.html
- Hogenboom, Melissa. "How Your Eyes Trick Your Mind." BBC Future. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/story/20150130-how-your-eyes-trick-your-mind/
- Keim, Brandon. "Rubber Hand Trick Reveals Brain-Body Link." Wired. Aug. 25, 2008. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www.wired.com/2008/08/rubber-hand-tri/
- Kim, Sae Young; Kim, Yun Young. "Mirror Therapy for Phantom Limb Pain." The Korean Journal of Pain. Vol. 25, pp. 272-274. 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3468806/
- Madrigal, Alexis C. "Things You Cannot Unsee (and What They Say About Your Brain)." The Atlantic. May 5, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2016) http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/10-things-you-cant-unsee-and-what-that-says-about-your-brain/361335/
- NobelPrize.org. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1981." Oct. 9, 1981. (Aug. 12, 2016) http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1981/press.html
- NPR. "V.S. Ramachandran's Tales of the 'Tell-Tale Brain.'" Feb. 14, 2011. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133026897/v-s-ramachandrans-tales-of-the-tell-tale-brain
- Schultz, Colin. "Are Optical Illusions Cultural?" Smithsonian.com. March 21, 2013. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/are-optical-illusions-cultural-6633978/?no-ist
- Smithsonian.com. "Did the Titanic Sink Because of an Optical Illusion?" March 1, 2012. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/did-the-titanic-sink-because-of-an-optical-illusion-102040309/
- University of Leicester. "How are visual illusions used in medicine and the arts and what was their role in history?" May 29, 2013. (Aug. 5, 2016) http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2013/may/how-are-visual-illusions-used-in-medicine-and-arts-and-what-was-their-role-in-history