Letters to the Editors, September/October 2011

Letters to the Editor about the May/June 2011 issue of Scientific American MIND

Allow me to take a stab at what might be behind White’s Effect, described in “Colors Out of Space,” by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde [Illusions]. The mystery is why the gray bars appear brighter when surrounded by white stripes and darker when surrounded by black stripes. I think the effect occurs because of the way our visual system quickly arranges a scene’s depth. By interpreting the illusion this way, the left side is composed of solid black columns partially obscured by a translucent rectangle, whereas the right side is composed of the same solid black columns now obscuring a solid gray rectangle that is also presumably in the columns’ shade. In this case, our visual system quickly deduces that the translucent object is a lighter color and closer and that the shaded object is a darker color and farther away.
Bobby Standridge
Springfield, Va.

What Are You Looking At?
by Nathan Collins [Head Lines], reports a bias. It also nicely falls prey to—or preys on—another. Our level of awareness is not just a function of our sensitivity to social cues, as the study of liberals and conservatives suggests.

We are not simply in the herd (sensitive) or out of the herd (independent). We are also rational and irrational. To rephrase to make the point less politically charged: sensitivity is not always irrational, and independence is not always rational.
Jason Dunn

As a graduate of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, I chuckled at the “politically correct” interpretation of the study that liberals would be more sensitive to social cues. Two thoughts occurred to me: first, “liberals” in Lincoln would very likely be “conservatives” in New York or California—neither term was defined. Second, could it be that the “liberals” were of lower intelligence or, because of confusion, took longer to focus?

I recommend Milton Rokeach’s classic The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems (first published in 1960), which posited that there are closed individuals on both ends of the political spectrum. His awareness and research is still relevant 50 years later.
Jim Lohr
Ames, Iowa

I was fascinated to learn that personality can vary according to the language one is using, as described in “Speaking with Affect,” by Nathan Collins [Head Lines]. It reminded me of a story I once heard about language and depression.

Over two decades ago a therapist colleague of mine in London was treating an Italian patient for mild depression. His approach was to get the patient to identify the internal dialogue she used to “tell herself” that she was a failure and so trigger a depressive state; he then worked to shift her trigger phrases to more positive ones and so create a more positive outlook.

The work was done in English because that was the therapist’s first language and the client was also fluent. But having achieved the treatment goal, my colleague deemed it necessary to repeat the exercise in Italian.

He asked her, “What words do you use in Italian to trigger your depression?” A look of extreme puzzlement came over the client’s face as she replied, “But I can’t get depressed in Italian!”
Susan Quilliam
Cambridge, England

This article was originally published with the title "Letters."

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