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See Inside Illusions: 187 Ways to Trick Your Brain

Afraid of Shadows

Spooky illusions trick and treat your brain


What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not? —Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

Halloween celebrates illusion. Even if we manage to ignore flights of fancy the other 364 days of the year, come October 31 we set out to enjoy trickery and pretense. We disguise ourselves, we carve malevolent expressions in bland, innocuous pumpkins and we do our best to suspend our disbelief as we enter supposedly haunted houses. We become illusion creators as well as willing victims. We seek fake fear. But costumes for our masquerades are not the only deceptions that Halloween brings you. Any emotion you experience, whether it be fright or delight, is real only in your mind. In a neural sense, all of us are afraid of “ghosts”; we all have irrational fears that are disconnected from fact (bugs and small spaces are some of our own personal phobias). With its harmless thrills and scares, Halloween pushes gently on the limits of the reality that our brain constructs. And one thing about limits, as Michael Jordan said in his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009, is that “like fears, [they] are often just an illusion.”

(Further Reading)

Mind Sights: Original Visual Illusions, Ambiguities, and Other Anomalies, with a Commentary on the Play of Mind in Perception and Art. R. N. Shepard. W. H. Freeman, 1990.

Ray Villafane's Pumpkins. R. Villafane. Gibbs Smith, 2012.

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