The Illusion of Love [Preview]

How do we fool thee? Let us count the ways that illusions play with our hearts and minds

Spanish essayist Miguel de Unamuno said, “Love is the child of illusion and the parent of disillusion.” Is this view cynical or biologically based? Illusions are, by definition, mismatches between physical reality and perception. Love, as with all emotions, has no external physical reality: it may be driven by neural events, but it is nonetheless a purely subjective experience. So, too, is the wounded heart we have drawn here. Where the arrow enters and exits the heart, there is no heart whatsoever, only an imaginary edge defined by the arrow.

This effect is called an illusory contour. We perceive the shape of the heart only because our brains impose a shape on a very sparse field of data. Neuroscientist Rüdiger von der Heydt and his colleagues, then at University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, have shown that illusory contours are processed in neurons within an area of the brain called V2, which is devoted to vision. The illusory heart even looks slightly whiter than the background, although it is actually the same shade. Much of our day-to-day experience is made up of analogous feats of filling in the blanks, as we take what we know about the world and use it to imagine what we do not know.

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