Wrangling With an Optical Illusion

Anyone who’s ever used Facebook knows it can be a colossal time waster. Once you get to scrolling, it’s hard to stop. But until recently, I’d never run across a post so fascinating and so frustrating that I could do nothing but stare at it for long minutes at a time while forlornly shaking my head.

A couple of weeks ago, Elisabeth Jones shared on her wall a black-and-white photo of a bizarre object that didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before. Above it were the words “It took me a lot longer than it should’ve to see what this actually is.” It resembled a Rorschach inkblot, so perhaps what it pictured was purely in the eye of the beholder. I could make a case for it being a bizarre insect cracking a whip. Or an upside down tyrannosaurus rex. Weirdest of all, I could kind of see a profile of Donald Trump wearing butterfly wings and speaking into a microphone.

Others who commented saw equally intriguing images. A lobster. A shrimp. A grasshopper. A penguin carrying a load of groceries. A bat hanging from a tree limb. There were those, of course, who saw the “real” picture. That’s what made the whole thing so frustrating. They wrote stuff like “Yes, yes!” or “There it is!” or “Oh! Oh! I just saw it!”

It brought to mind an object that sat on top of my great-aunt’s console TV decades ago, right in front of the rabbit ears. It was a brick, encased in a needlepoint cover. On it was a design stitched in brown and yellow yarn. To the casual observer, it was merely decorative. But if you studied the design hard enough, you might spot a name. If you could read it, all was well with your soul. If you couldn’t, it was probably time to set things right. Or so my aunt said. That name, of course, was JESUS. In all capital letters.

So maybe this ink blot Elisabeth had posted was something religious. She said no. Other commenters, the ones who’d seen what they were supposed to see, started sharing hints. Squint at the picture, they wrote. Stand way back and look at it. Close your eyes and then open them real fast. Then they started sharing GIFs of cowboys. To those of us who remained puzzled, Elisabeth said, “Keep looking, pardners.”

Ah, so there was a cowboy in the picture. That was good news for me. I love cowboys. So I stood back and squinted. I closed my eyes and opened them real fast. Could that grasshopper actually be a bucking bronco? Might the dinosaur really be a bull? I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t find a horse or a lasso or boots or spurs. I grew frustrated. Whiny. How much time had I wasted trying to see a cowboy in an inkblot where there was clearly no cowboy???

“Tell me so I can get some sleep tonight,” I begged.

Elisabeth finally took pity and sent me a private message. “The white space to the left is part of the picture,” she wrote. “It’s half of a cowboy’s face in the light. The black part is his face in the shadows. He’s wearing a ten-gallon hat.” Yep. There he was, staring right at me. How come I hadn’t seen him right off the bat? The answer has something to do with the way our brains process information sent to it by the eyes. It might also be explained by the fact that we all bring different expectations and life experiences with us when we look at a picture.

All I know is that I’m exceedingly glad I finally saw the cowboy, who just might be the reason I had such sweet dreams that night.

(March 13, 2021)