Illusions - A Psychological Study
by James Sully
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The present volume takes a wide survey of the field of error, embracing in its view not only the illusions of sense dealt with in treatises on physiological optics, etc., but also other errors familiarly known as illusions, and resembling the former in their structure and mode of origin. I have throughout endeavoured to keep to a strictly scientific treatment, that is to say, the description and classification of acknowledged errors, and the explanation of these by a reference to their psychical and physical conditions. At the same time, I was not able, at the close of my exposition, to avoid pointing out how the psychology leads on to the philosophy of the subject. Some of the chapters were first roughly sketched out in articles published in magazines and reviews; but these have been not only greatly enlarged, but, to a considerable extent, rewritten. J. S.

Hampstead, April, 1881.




Vulgar idea of Illusion, 1, 2; Psychological treatment of subject, 3, 4; definition of Illusion, 4-7; Philosophic extension of idea, 7, 8.



Popular and Scientific conceptions of Mind, 9, 10; Illusion and Hallucination, 11-13; varieties of Immediate Knowledge, 13-16; four-fold division of Illusions, 16-18.



Psychology of Perception:—The Psychological analysis of Perception, 19, 20; Sensation and its discrimination, etc., 20, 21; interpretation of Sensation, 22, 23; construction of material object, 23, 24; recognition of object, specific and individual, 24-27; Preperception and Perception, 27-31; Physiological conditions of Perception, 31-33; Visual and other Sense-perception, 33, 34.

Illusions of Perception:—Illusion of Perception defined, 35-38; sources of Sense-illusion, 38-40: (a) confusion of Sense-impression, 40-44; (b) misinterpretation of Sense-impression, 44; Passive and Active misinterpretation, 44-46; Passive Illusions as organically and extra-organically conditioned, 46-49.



A. Passive Illusions (a) as determined by the Organism. Results of Limits of Sensibility:—Relation of quantity of Sensation to that of Stimulus, 50-52; coalescence of simultaneous Sensations, 52-55; after-effect of Stimulation, 55, 56; effects of prolonged Stimulation, 56-58; Specific Energy of Nerves, 58, 59; localization of Sensation, 59-62; Subjective Sensations, 62-64.

Results of Variation of Sensibility:—Rise and fall of Sensibility, 64-67; Paraesesthesia, 67, 68; rationale of organically conditioned Illusions, 68, 69.



A. Passive Illusions (b) as determined by the Environment. Exceptional Relation of Stimulus to Organ:—Displacement of organ, etc., 70-72.

Exceptional Arrangement of Circumstances in the Environment:— Misinterpretation of the direction and movement of objects, 72-75; misperception of Distance, 75, 76; Illusions of depth, relief, and solidity in Art, 77-81; Illusions connected with the perception of objects through transparent coloured media, 82-84; visual transformation of concave into convex form, 84-86; false recognition of objects, 86, 87; inattention to Sense-impression in Recognition, 87-91; suggestion taking the direction of familiar recurring experiences, 91, 92.



B. Active Illusions.

Preperception and Illusion, 93-95.

Voluntary Preperception:—Choice of interpretation in the case of visible movement, 95, 96; and in the case of flat projections of form, 96-98; capricious interpretation of obscure impressions, 99, 100.

Involuntary Preperception:—Effects of permanent Predisposition, 101, 102; effects of partial temporary Preadjustment, 102-105; complete Pro-adjustment or Expectation, 106-109; subordination of Sense-impression to Preperception, 109-111; transition from Illusion to Hallucination, 111, 112; rudimentary Hallucinations, 112-114; developed Hallucinations, 114-116; Hallucination in normal life, 116, 117; Hallucinations of insanity, 118-120; gradual development of Sense-illusions, and continuity of normal and abnormal life; 120-123; Sanity and Insanity distinguished, 123-126.



Mystery of sleep, 127, 128; theories of Dreams, 128, 129; scientific explanation of Dreams, 129, 130.

Sleep and Dreaming:—Condition of organism during sleep, 131, 132; Are the nervous centres ever wholly inactive during sleep? 132-134; nature of cerebral activity involved in Dreams, 134-136; psychical conditions of Dreams, 136-138.

The Dream as Illusion:—External Sense-impressions as excitants of Dream-images, 139-143; internal "subjective" stimuli in the sense-organs, 143-145; organic sensations, 145-147; how sensations are exaggerated in Dream-interpretation, 147-151.

The Dream as Hallucination:—Results of direct central stimulation 151-153; indirect central stimulation and association, 153-155.

The Form and Structure of Dreams:—The incoherence of Dreams explained, 156-161; coherence and unity of Dream as effected (a) by coalescence and transformation of images, 161-163; (b) by aground-tone of feeling, 164-168; (c) by the play of associative dispositions, 168-172; (d) by the activities of selective attention stimulated by the rational impulse to connect and to arrange, 172-176; examples of Dreams, 176-179; limits of intelligence and rational activity in Dreams, 180-182; Dreaming and mental disease, 182, 183; After-dreams and Apparitions, 183-185.

NOTE.—The Hypnotic Condition, 185-188.



Illusions of Introspection defined, 189-192; question of the possibility of illusory Introspection, 192-194; incomplete grasp of internal feelings as such, 194-196; misobservation of internal feelings: Passive Illusions, 196-199; Active Illusions, 199-202; malobservation of subjective states, 202-205; Illusory Introspection in psychology and philosophy, 205-208; value of the Introspective method, 208-211.



Emotion and Perception, 212; AEsthetic Intuition, 213; Subjective Impressions of beauty misinterpreted, 213-216; analogous Emotional Intuitions, 216, 217; Insight, its nature, 217-220; Passive Illusions of Insight, 220-222; Active Illusions of Insight: projection of individual feelings, 222-224; the poetic transformation of nature, 224-226; special predispositions as falsifying Insight, 226-228; value of faculty of Insight, 228-230.



Vulgar confidence in Memory, 231-233; definition of Memory, 233-235; Psychology of Memory, 235-237; Physiology of Memory, 237, 238; Memory as localization in the past, 238-241; Illusions of Memory classified, 241-245.

(1) Illusions of Time-Perspective:—

(a) Definite Localization of events: constant errors in retrospective estimate of time, 245-249; varying errors: estimate of duration during a period, 249-251; variations in retrospective estimate of duration, 251-256.

(b) Indefinite Localization: effect of vividness of mnemonic image on the apparent distance of events, 256-258; isolated public events, 258, 259; active element in errors of Localization, 259-261.

(2) Distortions of Memory:—Transformation of past through forgetfulness, 261-264; confusion of distinct recollections, 264-266; Active Illusion: influence of present imaginative activity, 266-269; exaggeration in recollections of remote experiences, 269, 270; action of present feeling in transforming past, 270, 271.

(3) Hallucinations of Memory:—Their nature, 271-273; past dreams taken for external experiences, 273-277; past waking imagination taken for external reality, 277-280; recollection of prenatal ancestral experience, 280, 281; filling up gaps in recollection, 281-283. Illusions connected with, Personal Identity:—Illusions of Memory and Sense of identity, 283, 284; idea of permanent self, how built up, 285-287; disturbances of sense of identity, 287-290; fallibility and trustworthiness of Memory, 290-292.

NOTE.—Momentary Illusions of Self-consciousness, 293.



Belief as Immediate or Intuitive, 294-296; simple and compound Belief, 296.

A. Simple Illusory Belief:—

(1) Expectation: its nature, 297, 298; Is Expectation ever intuitive? 298; Expectation and Inference from the past, 299-301; Expectation of new kinds of experience, 301, 302; Permanent Expectations of remote events, 302; misrepresentation of future duration, 302-305; Imaginative transformation of future, 305-307.

(2) Quasi-Expectations: anticipation of extra-personal experiences, 307, 308; Retrospective Beliefs, 308-312.

B. Compound Illusory Belief:—

(1) Representations of permanent things: their structure, 312; our representations of others as illusory, 312-315; our representation of ourselves as illusory, 315; Illusion of self-esteem, 316-318; genesis of illusory opinion of self, 318-322; Illusion in our representations of classes of things, 322, 323; and in our views of the world as a whole, 323, 324; tendency of belief towards divergence, 325; and towards convergence, 326, 327.



Range of Illusion, 328-330; nature and causes of Illusion in general, 331-334; Illusion identical with Fallacy, 334; Illusion as abnormal, 336, 337; question of common error, 337-339; evolutionist's conception of error as maladaptation, 339-344; common intuitions tested only by philosophy, 344; assumptions of science respecting external reality, etc., 344-346; philosophic investigation of these assumptions, 346-348; connection between scientific and philosophic consideration of Illusion, 348-350; correction of Illusion and its implications, 351, 352; Fundamental Intuitions and modern psychology, 352; psychology as positive science and as philosophy, 353-355; points of resemblance between acknowledged Illusions and Fundamental Intuitions, 355, 356; question of origin, and question of validity, 356, 357; attitude of scientific mind towards philosophic scepticism, 357-360; Persistent Intuitions must be taken as true, 360, 361.




Common sense, knowing nothing of fine distinctions, is wont to draw a sharp line between the region of illusion and that of sane intelligence. To be the victim of an illusion is, in the popular judgment, to be excluded from the category of rational men. The term at once calls up images of stunted figures with ill-developed brains, half-witted creatures, hardly distinguishable from the admittedly insane. And this way of thinking of illusion and its subjects is strengthened by one of the characteristic sentiments of our age. The nineteenth century intelligence plumes itself on having got at the bottom of mediaeval visions and church miracles, and it is wont to commiserate the feeble minds that are still subject to these self-deceptions.

According to this view, illusion is something essentially abnormal and allied to insanity. And it would seem to follow that its nature and origin can be best studied by those whose speciality it is to observe the phenomena of abnormal life. Scientific procedure has in the main conformed to this distinction of common sense. The phenomena of illusion have ordinarily been investigated by alienists, that is to say, physicians who are brought face to face with their most striking forms in the mentally deranged.

While there are very good reasons for this treatment of illusion as a branch of mental pathology, it is by no means certain that it can be a complete and exhaustive one. Notwithstanding the flattering supposition of common sense, that illusion is essentially an incident in abnormal life, the careful observer knows well enough that the case is far otherwise.

There is, indeed, a view of our race diametrically opposed to the flattering opinion referred to above, namely, the humiliating judgment that all men habitually err, or that illusion is to be regarded as the natural condition of mortals. This idea has found expression, not only in the cynical exclamation of the misanthropist that most men are fools, but also in the cry of despair that sometimes breaks from the weary searcher after absolute truth, and from the poet when impressed with the unreality of his early ideals.

Without adopting this very disparaging opinion of the intellectual condition of mankind, we must recognize the fact that most men are sometimes liable to illusion. Hardly anybody is always consistently sober and rational in his perceptions and beliefs. A momentary fatigue of the nerves, a little mental excitement, a relaxation of the effort of attention by which we continually take our bearings with respect to the real world about us, will produce just the same kind of confusion of reality and phantasm, which we observe in the insane. To give but an example: the play of fancy which leads to a detection of animal and other forms in clouds, is known to be an occupation of the insane, and is rightly made use of by Shakespeare as a mark of incipient mental aberration in Hamlet; and yet this very same occupation is quite natural to children, and to imaginative adults when they choose to throw the reins on the neck of their phantasy. Our luminous circle of rational perception is surrounded by a misty penumbra of illusion. Common sense itself may be said to admit this, since the greatest stickler for the enlightenment of our age will be found in practice to accuse most of his acquaintance at some time or another of falling into illusion.

If illusion thus has its roots in ordinary mental life, the study of it would seem to belong to the physiology as much as to the pathology of mind. We may even go further, and say that in the analysis and explanation of illusion the psychologist may be expected to do more than the physician. If, on the one hand, the latter has the great privilege of observing the phenomena in their highest intensity, on the other hand, the former has the advantage of being familiar with the normal intellectual process which all illusion simulates or caricatures. To this it must be added that the physician is naturally disposed to look at illusion mainly, if not exclusively, on its practical side, that is, as a concomitant and symptom of cerebral disease, which it is needful to be able to recognize. The psychologist has a different interest in the subject, being specially concerned to understand the mental antecedents of illusion and its relation to accurate perception and belief. It is pretty evident, indeed, that the phenomena of illusion form a region common to the psychologist and the mental pathologist, and that the complete elucidation of the subject will need the co-operation of the two classes of investigator.

In the present volume an attempt will be made to work out the psychological side of the subject; that is to say, illusions will be viewed in their relation to the process of just and accurate perception. In the carrying out of this plan our principal attention will be given to the manifestations of the illusory impulse in normal life. At the same time, though no special acquaintance with the pathology of the subject will be laid claim to, frequent references will be made to the illusions of the insane. Indeed, it will be found that the two groups of phenomena—the illusions of the normal and of the abnormal condition—are so similar, and pass into one another by such insensible gradations, that it is impossible to discuss the one apart from the other. The view of illusion which will be adopted in this work is that it constitutes a kind of border-land between perfectly sane and vigorous mental life and dementia.

And here at once there forces itself on our attention the question, What exactly is to be understood by the term "illusion"? In scientific works treating of the pathology of the subject, the word is confined to what are specially known as illusions of the senses, that is to say, to false or illusory perceptions. And there is very good reason for this limitation, since such illusions of the senses are the most palpable and striking symptoms of mental disease. In addition to this, it must be allowed that, to the ordinary reader, the term first of all calls up this same idea of a deception of the senses.

At the same time, popular usage has long since extended the term so as to include under it errors which do not counterfeit actual perceptions. We commonly speak of a man being under an illusion respecting himself when he has a ridiculously exaggerated view of his own importance, and in a similar way of a person being in a state of illusion with respect to the past when, through frailty of memory, he pictures it quite otherwise than it is certainly known to have been.

It will be found, I think, that there is a very good reason for this popular extension of the term. The errors just alluded to have this in common with illusions of sense, that they simulate the form of immediate or self-evident cognition. An idea held respecting ourselves or respecting our past history does not depend on any other piece of knowledge; in other words, is not adopted as the result of a process of reasoning. What I believe with reference to my past history, so far as I can myself recall it, I believe instantaneously and immediately, without the intervention of any premise or reason. Similarly, our notions of ourselves are, for the most part, obtained apart from any process of inference. The view which a man takes of his own character or claims on society he is popularly supposed to receive intuitively by a mere act of internal observation. Such beliefs may not, indeed, have all the overpowering force which belongs to illusory perceptions, for the intuition of something by the senses is commonly looked on as the most immediate and irresistible kind of knowledge. Still, they must be said to come very near illusions of sense in the degree of their self-evident certainty.

Taking this view of illusion, we may provisionally define it as any species of error which counterfeits the form of immediate, self-evident, or intuitive knowledge, whether as sense-perception or otherwise. Whenever a thing is believed on its own evidence and not as a conclusion from something else, and the thing then believed is demonstrably wrong, there is an illusion. The term would thus appear to cover all varieties of error which are not recognized as fallacies or false inferences. If for the present we roughly divide all our knowledge into the two regions of primary or intuitive, and secondary or inferential knowledge, we see that illusion is false or spurious knowledge of the first kind, fallacy false or spurious knowledge of the second kind. At the same time, it is to be remembered that this division is only a very rough one. As will appear in the course of our investigation, the same error may be called either a fallacy or an illusion, according as we are thinking of its original mode of production or of the form which it finally assumes; and a thorough-going psychological analysis of error may discover that these two classes are at bottom very similar.

As we proceed, we shall, I think, find an ample justification for our definition. We shall see that such illusions as those respecting ourselves or the past arise by very much the same mental processes as those which are discoverable in the production of illusory perceptions; and thus a complete psychology of the one class will, at the same time, contain the explanation of the other classes.

The reader is doubtless aware that philosophers have still further extended the idea of illusion by seeking to bring under it beliefs which the common sense of mankind has always adopted and never begun to suspect. Thus, according to the idealist, the popular notion (the existence of which Berkeley, however, denied) of an external world, existing in itself and in no wise dependent on our perceptions of it, resolves itself into a grand illusion of sense.

At the close of our study of illusions we shall return to this point. We shall there inquire into the connection between those illusions which are popularly recognized as such, and those which first come into view or appear to do so (for we must not yet assume that there are such) after a certain kind of philosophic reflection. And some attempt will be made to determine roughly how far the process of dissolving these substantial beliefs of mankind into airy phantasms may venture to go.

For the present, however, these so-called illusions in philosophy will be ignored. It is plain that illusion exists only in antithesis to real knowledge. This last must be assumed as something above all question. And a rough and provisional, though for our purpose sufficiently accurate, demarcation of the regions of the real and the illusory seems to coincide with the line which common sense draws between what all normal men agree in holding and what the individual holds, whether temporarily or permanently, in contradiction to this. For our present purpose the real is that which is true for all. Thus, though physical science may tell us that there is nothing corresponding to our sensations of colour in the world of matter and motion which it conceives as surrounding us; yet, inasmuch as to all men endowed with the normal colour-sense the same material objects appear to have the same colour, we may speak of any such perception as practically true, marking it off from those plainly illusory perceptions which are due to some subjective cause, as, for example, fatigue of the retina.

To sum up: in treating of illusions we shall assume, what science as distinguished from philosophy is bound to assume, namely, that human experience is consistent; that men's perceptions and beliefs fall into a consensus. From this point of view illusion is seen to arise through some exceptional feature in the situation or condition of the individual, which, for the time, breaks the chain of intellectual solidarity which under ordinary circumstances binds the single member to the collective body. Whether the common experience which men thus obtain is rightly interpreted is a question which does not concern us here. For our present purpose, which is the determination and explanation of illusion as popularly understood, it is sufficient that there is this general consensus of belief, and this may provisionally be regarded as at least practically true.



If illusion is the simulation of immediate knowledge, the most obvious mode of classifying illusions would appear to be according to the variety of the knowledge which they simulate.

Now, the popular psychology that floats about in the ordinary forms of language has long since distinguished certain kinds of unreasoned or uninferred knowledge. Of these the two best known are perception and memory. When I see an object before me, or when I recall an event in my past experience, I am supposed to grasp a piece of knowledge directly, to know something immediately, and not through the medium of something else. Yet I know differently in the two cases. In the first I know by what is called a presentative process, namely, that of sense-perception; in the second I know by a representative process, namely, that of reproduction, or on the evidence of memory. In the one case the object of cognition is present to my perceptive faculties; in the other it is recalled by the power of memory.

Scientific psychology tends, no doubt, to break down some of these popular distinctions. Just as the zoologist sometimes groups together varieties of animals which the unscientific eye would never think of connecting, so the psychologist may analyze mental operations which appear widely dissimilar to the popular mind, and reduce them to one fundamental process. Thus recent psychology draws no sharp distinction between perception and recollection. It finds in both very much the same elements, though combined in a different way. Strictly speaking, indeed, perception must be defined as a presentative-representative operation. To the psychologist it comes to very much the same thing whether, for example, on a visit to Switzerland, our minds are occupied in perceiving the distance of a mountain or in remembering some pleasant excursion which we made to it on a former visit. In both cases there is a reinstatement of the past, a reproduction of earlier experience, a process of adding to a present impression a product of imagination—taking this word in its widest sense. In both cases the same laws of reproduction or association are illustrated.

Just as a deep and exhaustive analysis of the intellectual operations thus tends to identify their various forms as they are distinguished by the popular mind, so a thorough investigation of the flaws in these operations, that is to say, the counterfeits of knowledge, will probably lead to an identification of the essential mental process which underlies them. It is apparent, for example, that, whether a man projects some figment of his imagination into the external world, giving it, present material reality, or whether (if I may be allowed the term) he retrojects it into the dim region of the past, and takes it for a reality that has been he is committing substantially the same blunder. The source of the illusion in both cases is one and the same.

It might seem to follow from this that a scientific discussion of the subject would overlook the obvious distinction between illusions of perception and those of memory; that it would attend simply to differences in the mode of origination of the illusion, whatever its external form. Our next step, then, would appear to be to determine these differences in the mode of production.

That there are differences in the origin and source of illusion is a fact which has been fully recognized by those writers who have made a special study of sense-illusions. By these the term illusion is commonly employed in a narrow, technical sense, and opposed to hallucination. An illusion, it is said, must always have its starting-point in some actual impression, whereas a hallucination has no such basis. Thus it is an illusion when a man, under the action of terror, takes a stump of a tree, whitened by the moon's rays, for a ghost. It is a hallucination when an imaginative person so vividly pictures to himself the form of some absent friend that, for the moment, he fancies himself actually beholding him. Illusion is thus a partial displacement of external fact by a fiction of the imagination, while hallucination is a total displacement.

This distinction, which has been adopted by the majority of recent alienists[1], is a valuable one, and must not be lost sight of here. It would seem, from a psychological point of view, to be an important circumstance in the genesis of a false perception whether the intellectual process sets out from within or from without. And it will be found, moreover, that this distinction may be applied to all the varieties of error which I propose to consider. Thus, for example, it will be seen further on that a false recollection may set out either from the idea of some actual past occurrence or from a present product of the imagination.

It is to be observed, however, that the line of separation between illusion and hallucination, as thus defined, is a very narrow one. In by far the largest number of hallucinations it is impossible to prove that there is no modicum of external agency co-operating in the production of the effect. It is presumable, indeed, that many, if not all, hallucinations have such a basis of fact. Thus, the madman who projects his internal thoughts outwards in the shape of external voices may, for aught we know, be prompted to do so in part by faint impressions coming from the ear, the result of those slight stimulations to which the organ is always exposed, even in profound silence, and which in his case assume an exaggerated intensity. And even if it is clearly made out that there are hallucinations in the strict sense, that is to say, false perceptions which are wholly due to internal causes, it must be conceded that illusion shades off into hallucination by steps which it is impossible for science to mark. In many cases it must be left an open question whether the error is to be classed as an illusion or as a hallucination.[2]

For these reasons, I think it best not to make the distinction between illusion and hallucination the leading principle of my classification. However important psychologically, it does not lend itself to this purpose. The distinction must be kept in view and illustrated as far as possible. Accordingly, while in general following popular usage and employing the term illusion as the generic name, I shall, when convenient, recognize the narrow and technical sense of the term as answering to a species co-ordinate with hallucination.

Departing, then, from what might seem the ideally best order of exposition, I propose, after all, to set out with the simple popular scheme of faculties already referred to. Even if they are, psychologically considered, identical operations, perception and memory are in general sufficiently marked off by a speciality in the form of the operation. Thus, while memory is the reproduction of something with a special reference of consciousness to its past existence, perception is the reproduction of something with a special reference to its present existence as a part of the presented object. In other words, though largely representative when viewed as to its origin, perception is presentative in relation to the object which is supposed to be immediately present to the mind at the moment.[3] Hence the convenience of recognizing the popular classification, and of making it our starting-point in the present case.

All knowledge which has any appearance of being directly reached, immediate, or self-evident, that is to say, of not being inferred from other knowledge, may be divided into four principal varieties: Internal Perception or Introspection of the mind's own feelings; External Perception; Memory; and Belief, in so far as it simulates the form of direct knowledge. The first is illustrated in a man's consciousness of a present feeling of pain or pleasure. The second and the third kinds have already been spoken of, and are too familiar to require illustration. It is only needful to remark here that, under perception, or rather in close conjunction with it, I purpose dealing with the knowledge of other's feelings, in so far as this assumes the aspect of immediate knowledge. The term belief is here used to include expectations and any other kinds of conviction that do not fall under one of the other heads. An instance of a seemingly immediate belief would be a prophetic prevision of a coming disaster, or a man's unreasoned persuasion as to his own powers of performing a difficult task.

It is, indeed, said by many thinkers that there are no legitimate immediate beliefs; that all our expectations and other convictions about things, in so far as they are sound, must repose on other genuinely immediate knowledge, more particularly sense-perception and memory. This difficult question need not be discussed here. It is allowed by all that there is a multitude of beliefs which we hold tenaciously and on which we are ready to act, which, to the mature mind, wear the appearance of intuitive truths, owing their cogency to nothing beyond themselves. A man's belief in his own merits, however it may have been first obtained, is as immediately assured to him as his recognition of a real object in the act of sense-perception. It may be added that many of our every-day working beliefs about the world in which we live, though presumably derived from memory and perception, tend to lose all traces of their origin, and to simulate the aspect of intuitions. Thus the proposition that logicians are in the habit of pressing on our attention, that "Men are mortal," seems, on the face of it, to common sense to be something very like a self-evident truth, not depending on any particular facts of experience.

In calling these four forms of cognition immediate, I must not, however, be supposed to be placing them on the same logical level. It is plain, indeed, to a reflective mind that, though each may be called immediate in this superficial sense, there are perceptible differences in the degree of their immediacy. Thus it is manifest, after a moment's reflection, that expectation, so far as it is just, is not primarily immediate in the sense in which purely presentative knowledge is so, since it can be shown to follow from something else. So a general proposition, though through familiarity and innumerable illustrations it has acquired a self-evident character, is seen with a very little inspection to be less fundamentally and essentially so than the proposition, "I am now feeling pain;" and it will be found that even with respect to memory, when the remembered event is at all remote, the process of cognition approximates to a mediate operation, namely, one of inference. What the relative values of these different kinds of immediate knowledge are is a point which will have to be touched on at the end of our study. Here it must suffice to warn the reader against the supposition that this value is assumed to be identical.

It might seem at a first glance to follow from this four-fold scheme of immediate or quasi-immediate knowledge that there are four varieties of illusion. And this is true in the sense that these four heads cover all the main varieties of illusion. If there are only four varieties of knowledge which can lay any claim to be considered immediate, it must be that every illusion will simulate the form of one of these varieties, and so be referable to the corresponding division.

But though there are conceivably these four species of illusion, it does not follow that there are any actual instances of each class forthcoming. This we cannot determine till we have investigated the nature and origin of illusory error. For example, it might be found that introspection, or the immediate inspection of our own feelings or mental states, does not supply the conditions necessary to the production of such error. And, indeed, it is probable that most persons, antecedently to inquiry, would be disposed to say that to fall into error in the observation of what is actually going on in our own minds is impossible.

With the exception of this first division, however, this scheme may easily be seen to answer to actual phenomena. That there are illusions of perception is obvious, since it is to the errors of sense that the term illusion has most frequently been confined. It is hardly less evident that there are illusions of memory. The peculiar difficulty of distinguishing between a past real event and a mere phantom of the imagination, illustrated in the exclamation, "I either saw it or dreamt it," sufficiently shows that memory is liable to be imposed on. Finally, it is agreed on by all that the beliefs we are wont to regard as self-evident are sometimes erroneous. When, for example, an imaginative woman says she knows, by mere intuition, that something interesting is going to happen, say the arrival of a favourite friend, she is plainly running the risk of being self-deluded. So, too, a man's estimate of himself, however valid for him, may turn out to be flagrantly false.

In the following discussion of the subject I shall depart from the above order in so far as to set out with illusions of sense-perception. These are well ascertained, forming, indeed, the best-marked variety. And the explanation of these has been carried much further than that of the others. Hence, according to the rule to proceed from the known to the unknown, there will be an obvious convenience in examining these first of all. After having done this, we shall be in a position to inquire whether there is anything analogous in the region of introspection or internal perception. Our study of the errors of sense-perception will, moreover, prove the best preparation for an inquiry into the nature and mode of production of the remaining two varieties.[4]

I would add that, in close connection with the first division, illusions of perception, I shall treat the subtle and complicated phenomena of dreams. Although containing elements which ought, according to strictness, to be brought under one of the other heads, they are, as their common appellation, "visions," shows, largely simulations of external, and more especially visual, perception.

Dreams are no doubt sharply marked off from illusions of sense-perception by a number of special circumstances. Indeed, it may be thought that they cannot be adequately treated in a work that aims primarily at investigating the illusions of normal life, and should rather be left to those who make the pathological side of the subject their special study. Yet it may, perhaps, be said that in a wide sense dreams are a feature of normal life. And, however this be, they have quite enough in common with other illusions of perception to justify us in dealing with them in close connection with these.



The errors with which we shall be concerned in this chapter are those which are commonly denoted by the term illusion, that is to say, those of sense. They are sometimes called deceptions of the senses; but this is a somewhat loose expression, suggesting that we can be deceived as to sensation itself, though, as we shall see later on, this is only true in a very restricted meaning of the phrase. To speak correctly, sense-illusions must be said to arise by a simulation of the form of just and accurate perceptions. Accordingly, we shall most frequently speak of them as illusions of perception.

In order to investigate the nature of any kind of error, it is needful to understand the kind of knowledge it imitates, and so we must begin our inquiry into the nature of illusions of sense by a brief account of the psychology of perception; and, in doing this, we shall proceed best by regarding this operation in its most complete form, namely, that of visual perception.

I may observe that in this analysis of perception I shall endeavour to keep to known facts, namely, the psychical phenomena or events which can be seen by the methods of scientific psychology to enter into the mental content called the percept. I do not now inquire whether such an analysis can help us to understand all that is meant by perception. This point will have to be touched later on. Here it is enough to say that, whatever our philosophy of perception may be, we must accept the psychological fact that the concrete mental state in the act of perception is built up out of elements, the history of which can be traced by the methods of mental science.

Psychology of Perception.

Confining ourselves for the present to the mental, as distinguished from the physical, side of the operation, we soon find that perception is not so simple a matter as it might at first seem to be. When a man on a hot day looks at a running stream and "sees" the delicious coolness, it is not difficult to show that he is really performing an act of mental synthesis, or imaginative construction. To the sense-impression[5] which his eye now gives him, he adds something which past experience has bequeathed to his mind. In perception, the material of sensation is acted on by the mind, which embodies in its present attitude all the results of its past growth. Let us look at this process of synthesis a little more closely.

When a sensation arises in the mind, it may, under certain circumstances, go unattended to. In that case there is no perception. The sensation floats in the dim outer regions of consciousness as a vague feeling, the real nature and history of which are unknown. This remark applies not only to the undefined bodily sensations that are always oscillating about the threshold of obscure consciousness, but to the higher sensations connected with the special organs of perception. The student in optics soon makes the startling discovery that his field of vision has all through his life been haunted with weird shapes which have never troubled the serenity of his mind just because they have never been distinctly attended to.

The immediate result of this process of directing the keen glance of attention to a sensation is to give it greater force and distinctness. By attending to it we discriminate it from other feelings present and past, and classify it with like sensations previously received. Thus, if I receive a visual impression of the colour orange, the first consequence of attending to it is to mark it off from other colour-impressions, including those of red and yellow. And in recognizing the peculiar quality of the impression by applying to it the term orange, I obviously connect it with other similar sensations called by the same name. If a sensation is perfectly new, there cannot, of course, be this process of classifying, and in this case the closely related operation of discriminating it from other sensations is less exactly performed. But it is hardly necessary to remark that, in the mind of the adult, under ordinary circumstances, no perfectly new sensation ever occurs.

When the sensation, or complex sensation, is thus defined and recognized, there follows the process of interpretation, by which I mean the taking up of the impression as an element into the complex mental state known as a percept. Without going into the philosophical question of what this process of synthesis exactly means, I may observe that, by common consent, it takes place to a large extent by help of a reproduction of sensations of various kinds experienced in the past. That is to say, the details in this act of combination are drawn from the store of mental recollections to which the growing mind is ever adding. In other words, the percept arises through a fusion of an actual sensation with mental representations or "images" of sensation.[6] Every element of the object that we thus take up in the act of perception, or put into the percept, as its actual size, distance, and so on, will be found to make itself known to us through mental images or revivals of past experiences, such as those we have in handling the object, moving to and from it, etc. It follows that if this is an essential ingredient in the act of perception, the process closely resembles an act of inference; and, indeed, Helmholtz distinctly calls the perception of distance an unconscious inference or a mechanically performed act of judgment.

I have hinted that these recovered sensations include the feelings we experience in connection with muscular activity, as in moving our limbs, resisting or lifting heavy bodies, and walking to a distant object. Modern psychology refers the eye's instantaneous recognition of the most important elements of an object (its essential or "primary" qualities) to a reinstatement of such simple experiences as these. It is, indeed, these reproductions which are supposed to constitute the substantial background of our percepts.

Another thing worth noting with respect to this process of filling up a sense-impression is that it draws on past sensations of the eye itself. Thus, when I look at the figure of an acquaintance from behind, my reproductive visual imagination supplies a representation of the impressions I am wont to receive when the more interesting aspect of the object, the front view, is present to my visual sense.[7]

We may distinguish between different steps in the full act of visual recognition. First of all comes the construction of a material object of a particular figure and size, and at a particular distance; that is to say, the recognition of a tangible thing having certain simple space-properties, and holding a certain relation to other objects, and more especially our own body, in space. This is the bare perception of an object, which always takes place even in the case of perfectly new objects, provided they are seen with any degree of distinctness. It is to be added that the reference of a sensation of light or colour to such an object involves the inclusion of a quality answering to the sensation, as brightness, or blue colour, in the thing thus intuited.

This part of the process of filling in, which is the most instantaneous, automatic, and unconscious, may be supposed to answer to the most constant and therefore the most deeply organized connections of experience; for, speaking generally, we never have an impression of colour, except when there are circumstances present which are fitted to yield us those simple muscular and tactual experiences through which the ideas of a particular form, size, etc., are pretty certainly obtained.

The second step in this process of presentative construction is the recognition of an object as one of a class of things, for example, oranges, having certain special qualities, as a particular taste. In this step the connections of experience are less deeply organized, and so we are able to some extent, by reflection, to recognize it as a kind of intellectual working up of the materials supplied us by the past. It is to be noted that this process of recognition involves a compound operation of classifying impressions as distinguished from that simple operation by which a single impression, such as a particular colour, is known. Thus the recognition of such an object as an orange takes place by a rapid classing of a multitude of passive sensations of colour, light, and shade, and those active or muscular sensations which are supposed to enter into the visual perception of form.

A still less automatic step in the process of visual recognition is that of identifying individual objects, as Westminster Abbey, or a friend, John Smith. The amount of experience that is here reproduced may be very large, as in the case of recognizing a person with whom we have had a long and intimate acquaintance.

If the recognition of an object as one of a class, for example, an orange, involves a compound process of classing impressions, that of an individual object involves a still more complicated process. The identification of a friend, simple as this operation may at first appear, really takes place by a rapid classing of all the salient characteristic features which serve as the visible marks of that particular person.

It is to be noted that each kind of recognition, specific and individual, takes place by a consciousness of likeness amid unlikeness. It is obvious that a new individual object has characters not shared in by other objects previously inspected. Thus, we at once class a man with a dark-brown skin, wearing a particular garb, as a Hindoo, though he may differ in a host of particulars from the other Hindoos that we have observed. In thus instantly recognizing him as a Hindoo, we must, it is plain, attend to the points of similarity, and overlook for the instant the points of dissimilarity. In the case of individual identification, the same thing happens. Strictly speaking, no object ever appears exactly the same to us on two occasions. Apart from changes in the object itself, especially in the case of living beings, there are varying effects of illumination, of position in relation to the eye, of distance, and so on, which very distinctly affect the visual impression at different times. Yet the fact of our instantly recognizing a familiar object in spite of these fluctuations of appearance, proves that we are able to overlook a very considerable amount of diversity when a certain amount of likeness is present.

It is further to be observed that in these last stages of perception we approach the boundary line between perception and inference. To recognize an object as one of a class is often a matter of conscious reflection and judgment, even when the class is constituted by obvious material qualities which the senses may be supposed to apprehend immediately. Still more clearly does perception pass into inference when the class is constituted by less obvious qualities, which require a careful and prolonged process of recollection, discrimination, and comparison, for their recognition. Thus, to recognize a man by certain marks of gesture and manner as a military man or a Frenchman, though popularly called a perception, is much more of an unfolded process of conscious inference. And what applies to specific recognition applies still more forcibly to individual recognition, which is often a matter of very delicate conscious comparison and judgment. To say where the line should be drawn here between perception and observation on the one hand, and inference on the other, is clearly impossible. Our whole study of the illusions of perception will serve to show that the one shades off into the other too gradually to allow of our drawing a hard and fast line between them.

Finally, it is to be noted that these last stages of perception bring us near the boundary line which separates objective experience as common and universal, and subjective or variable experience as confined to one or to a few. In the bringing of the object under a certain class of objects there is clearly room for greater variety of individual perception. For example, the ability to recognize a man as a Frenchman turns on a special kind of previous experience. And this transition from the common or universal to the individual experience is seen yet more plainly in the case of individual recognition. To identify an object, say a particular person, commonly presupposes some previous experience or knowledge of this object, and the existence in the past of some special relation of the recognizer to the recognized, if only that of an observer. In fact, it is evident that in this mode of recognition we have the transition from common perception to individual recollection.[8]

While we may thus distinguish different steps in the process of visual recognition, we may make a further distinction, marking off a passive and an active stage in the process. The one may be called the stage of preperception, the other that of perception proper.[9] In the first the mind holds itself in a passive attitude, except in so far as the energies of external attention are involved. The impression here awakens the mental images which answer to past experiences according to the well-known laws of association. The interpretative image which is to transform the impression into a percept is now being formed by a mere process of suggestion.

When the image is thus formed, the mind may be said to enter upon a more active stage, in which it now views the impression through the image, or applies this as a kind of mould or framework to the impression. This appears to involve an intensification of the mental image, transforming it from a representative to a presentative mental state, making it approximate somewhat to the full intensity of the sensation. In many of our instantaneous perceptions these two stages are indistinguishable to consciousness. Thus, in most cases, the recognition of size, distance, etc., takes place so rapidly that it is impossible to detect the two phases here separated. But in the classification of an object, or the identification of an individual thing, there is often an appreciable interval between the first reception of the impression and the final stage of complete recognition. And here it is easy to distinguish the two stages of preperception and perception. The interpretative image is slowly built up by the operation of suggestion, at the close of which the impression is suddenly illumined as by a flash of light, and takes a definite, precise shape.

Now, it is to be noted that the process of preperception will be greatly aided by any circumstance that facilitates the construction of the particular interpretative image required. Thus, the more frequently a similar process of perception has been performed in the past, the more ready will the mind be to fall into the particular way of interpreting the impression. As G.H. Lewes well remarks, "The artist sees details where to other eyes there is a vague or confused mass; the naturalist sees an animal where the ordinary eye only sees a form." This is but one illustration of the seemingly universal mental law, that what is repeatedly done will be done more and more easily.

The process of preperception may be shortened, not only by means of a permanent disposition to frame the required interpretative scheme, the residuum of past like processes, but also by means of any temporary disposition pointing in the same direction. If, for example, the mind of a naturalist has just been occupied about a certain class of bird, that is to say, if he has been dwelling on the mental image of this bird, he will recognize one at a distance more quickly than he would otherwise have done. Such a simple mental operation as the recognition of one of the less common flowers, say a particular orchid, will vary in duration according as we have or have not been recently forming an image of this flower. The obvious explanation of this is that the mental image of an object bears a very close resemblance to the corresponding percept, differing from it, indeed, in degree only, that is to say, through the fact that it involves no actual sensation. Here again we see illustrated a general psychological law, namely, that what the mind has recently done, it tends (within certain limits) to go on doing.

It is to be noticed, further, that the perception of a single object or event is rarely an isolated act of the mind. We recognize and understand the things that surround us through their relations one to another. Sometimes the adjacent circumstances and events suggest a definite expectation of the new impression. Thus, for example, the sound of a gun heard during a walk in the country is instantly interpreted by help of suggestions due to the previous appearance of the sportsman, and the act of raising the gun to his shoulder. It may be added that the verbal suggestions of others act very much like the suggestions of external circumstances. If I am told that a gun is going to be fired, my mind is prepared for it just as though I saw the sportsman.[10]

More frequently the effect of such surrounding circumstances is to give an air of familiarity to the new impression, to shorten the interval in which the required interpretative image is forthcoming. Thus, when travelling in Italy, the visual impression answering to a ruined temple or a bareheaded friar is construed much more rapidly than it would be elsewhere, because of the attitude of mind due to the surrounding circumstances. In all such cases the process of preperception connected with a given impression is effected more or less completely by the suggestions of other and related impressions.

It follows from all that has been just said that our minds are never in exactly the same state of readiness with respect to a particular process of perceptional interpretation. Sometimes the meaning of an impression flashes on us at once, and the stage of preperception becomes evanescent. At other times the same impression will fail for an appreciable interval to divulge its meaning. These differences are, no doubt, due in part to variations in the state of attention at the moment; but they depend as well on fluctuations in the degree of the mind's readiness to look at the impression in the required way.

In order to complete this slight analysis of perception, we must look for a moment at its physical side, that is to say, at the nervous actions which are known or supposed with some degree of probability to accompany it.

The production of the sensation is known to depend on a certain external process, namely, the action of some stimulus, as light, on the sense-organ, which stimulus has its point of departure in the object, such as it is conceived by physical science. The sensation arises when the nervous process is transmitted through the nerves to the conscious centre, often spoken of as the sensorium, the exact seat of which is still a matter of some debate.

The intensification of the sensation by the reaction of attention is supposed to depend on some reinforcement of the nervous excitation in the sensory centre proceeding from the motor regions, which are hypothetically regarded as the centre of attention.[11] The classification of the impression, again, is pretty certainly correlated with the physical fact that the central excitation calls into activity elements which have already been excited in the same way.

The nervous counterpart of the final stage of perception, the synthesis of the sensation and the mental representation, is not clearly ascertained. A sensation clearly resembles a mental image in quality. It is most obviously marked off from the image by its greater vividness or intensity. Agreeably to this view, it is now held by a number of eminent physiologists and psychologists that the nervous process underlying a sensation occupies the same central region as that which underlies the corresponding image. According to this theory, the two processes differ in their degree of energy only, this difference being connected with the fact that the former involves, while the latter does not involve, the peripheral region of the nervous system. Accepting this view as on the whole well founded, I shall speak of an ideational, or rather an imaginational; and a sensational nervous process, and not of an ideational and a sensational centre.[12]

The special force that belongs to the representative element in a percept, as compared with that of a pure "perceptional" image,[13] is probably connected with the fact that, in the case of actual perception, the nervous process underlying the act of imaginative construction is organically united to the initial sensational process, of which indeed it may be regarded as a continuation.

For the physical counterpart of the two stages in the interpretative part of perception, distinguished as the passive stage of preperception, and the active stage of perception proper, we may, in the absence of certain knowledge, fall back on the hypothesis put forward by Dr. J. Hughlings Jackson, in the articles in Brain already referred to, namely, that the former answers to an action of the right hemisphere of the brain, the latter to a subsequent action of the left hemisphere. The expediting of the process of preperception in those cases where it has frequently been performed before, is clearly an illustration of the organic law that every function is improved by exercise. And the temporary disposition to perform the process due to recent imaginative activity, is explained at once on the physical side by the supposition that an actual perception and a perceptional image involve the activity of the same nervous tracts. For, assuming this to be the case, it follows, from a well-known organic law, that a recent excitation would leave a temporary disposition in these particular structures to resume that particular mode of activity.

What has here been said about visual perception will apply, mutatis mutandis, to other kinds. Although the eye is the organ of perception par excellence, our other senses are also avenues by which we intuit and recognize objects. Thus touch, especially when it is finely developed as it is in the blind, gives an immediate knowledge of objects—a more immediate knowledge, indeed, of their fundamental properties than sight. What makes the eye so vastly superior to the organ of touch as an instrument of perception, is first of all the range of its action, taking in simultaneously a large number of impressions from objects at a distance as well as near; and secondly, though this may seem paradoxical, the fact that it gives us so much indirectly, that is, by way of association and suggestion. This is the interesting side of visual perception, that, owing to the vast complex of distinguishable sensations of light and colour of various qualities and intensities, together with the muscular sensations attending the varying positions of the organ, the eye is able to recognize at any instant a whole external world with its fundamental properties and relations. The ear comes next to the eye in this respect, but only after a long interval, since its sensations (even in the case of musical combinations) do not simultaneously order themselves in an indefinitely large group of distinguishable elements, and since even the comparatively few sensations which it is capable of simultaneously receiving, being altogether passive—that is to say, having no muscular accompaniments—impart but little and vague information respecting the external order. It is plain, then, that in the study of illusion, where the indirectly known elements are the thing to be considered, the eye, and after this the ear, will mostly engage our attention.[14]

So much it seemed needful to say about the mechanism of perception, in order to understand the slight disturbances of this mechanism that manifest themselves in sense-illusion. It may be added that our study of these illusions will help still further to elucidate the exact nature of perception. Normal mental life, as a whole, at once illustrates, and is illustrated by, abnormal. And while we need a rough provisional theory of accurate perception in order to explain illusory perception at all, the investigation of this latter cannot fail to verify and even render more complete the theory which it thus temporarily adopts.

Illusions of Perception.

With this brief psychological analysis of perception to help us, let us now pass to the consideration of the errors incident to the process, with a view to classify them according to their psychological nature and origin.

And here there naturally arises the question, How shall we define an illusion of perception? When trying to fix the definition of illusion in general, I practically disposed of this question. Nevertheless, as the point appears to me to be of some importance, I shall reproduce and expand one or two of the considerations then brought forward.

It is said by certain, philosophers that perception, as a whole, is an illusion, inasmuch as it involves the fiction of a real thing independent of mind, yet somehow present to it in the act of sense-perception. But this is a question for philosophy, not for science. Science, including psychology, assumes that in perception there is something real, without inquiring what it may consist of, or what its meaning may be. And though in the foregoing analysis of perception, viewed as a complex mental phenomenon or psychical process, I have argued that a percept gets its concrete filling up out of elements of conscious experience or sensations, I have been careful not to contend that the particular elements of feeling thus represented are the object of perception or the thing perceived. It may be that what we mean by a single object with its assemblage of qualities is much more than any number of such sensations; and it must be confessed that, on the face of it, it seems to be much more. And however this be, the question, What is meant by object; and is the common persuasion of the existence of such an entity in the act of perception accurate or illusory? must be handed over to philosophy.

While in the following examination of sense-illusions we put out of sight what certain philosophers say about the illusoriness of perception as a whole, we shall also do well to leave out of account what physical science is sometimes supposed to tell us respecting a constant element of illusion in perception. The physicist, by reducing all external changes to "modes of motion," appears to leave no room in his world-mechanism for the secondary qualities of bodies, such as light and heat, as popularly conceived. Yet, while allowing this, I think we may still regard the attribution of qualities like colour to objects as in the main correct and answering to a real fact. When a person says an object is red, he is understood by everybody as affirming something which is true or false, something therefore which either involves an external fact or is illusory. It would involve an external fact whenever the particular sensation which he receives is the result of a physical action (other vibrations of a certain order), which would produce a like sensation in anybody else in the same situation and endowed with the normal retinal sensibility. On the other hand, an illusory attribution of colour would imply that there is no corresponding physical agency at work in the case, but that the sensation is connected with exceptional individual conditions, as, for example, altered retinal sensibility.

We are now, perhaps, in a position to frame a rough definition of an illusion of perception as popularly understood. A large number of such phenomena may be described as consisting in the formation of percepts or quasi-percepts in the minds of individuals under external circumstances which would not give rise to similar percepts in the case of other people.

A little consideration, however, will show that this is not an adequate definition of what is ordinarily understood by an illusion of sense. There are special circumstances which are fitted to excite a momentary illusion in all minds. The optical illusions due to the reflection and refraction of light are not peculiar to the individual, but arise in all minds under precisely similar external conditions.

It is plain that the illusoriness of a perception is in these cases determined in relation to the sense-impressions of other moments and situations, or to what are presumably better percepts than the present one. Sometimes this involves an appeal from one sense to another. Thus, there is the process of verification of sight by touch, for example, in the case of optical images, a mode of perception which, as we have seen, gives a more direct cognition of external quality. Conversely, there may occasionally be a reference from touch to sight, when it is a question of discriminating two points lying very close to one another. Finally, the same sense may correct itself, as when the illusion of the stereoscope is corrected by afterwards looking at the two separate pictures.

We may thus roughly define an illusion of perception as consisting in the formation of a quasi-percept which is peculiar to an individual, or which is contradicted by another and presumably more accurate percept. Or, if we take the meaning of the word common to include both the universal as contrasted with the individual experience, and the permanent, constant, or average, as distinguished from the momentary and variable percept, we may still briefly describe an illusion of perception as a deviation from the common or collective experience.

Sources of Sense-Illusion.

Understanding sense-illusion in this way, let us glance back at the process of perception in its several stages or aspects, with the object of discovering what room occurs for illusion.

It appears at first as if the preliminary stages—the reception, discrimination, and classification of an impression—would not offer the slightest opening for error. This part of the mechanism of perception seems to work so regularly and so smoothly that one can hardly conceive a fault in the process. Nevertheless, a little consideration will show that even here all does not go on with unerring precision.

Let us suppose that the very first step is wanting—distinct attention to an impression. It is easy to see that this will favour illusion by leading to a confusion of the impression. Thus the timid man will more readily fall into the illusion of ghost-seeing than a cool-headed observant man, because he is less attentive to the actual impression of the moment. This inattention to the sense-impression will be found to be a great co-operating factor in the production of illusions.

But if the sensation is properly attended to, can there be error through a misapprehension of what is actually in the mind at the moment? To say that there can may sound paradoxical, and yet in a sense this is demonstrable. I do not mean that there is an observant mind behind and distinct from the sensation, and failing to observe it accurately through a kind of mental short-sightedness. What I mean is that the usual psychical effect of the incoming nervous process may to some extent be counteracted by a powerful reaction of the centres. In the course of our study of illusions, we shall learn that it is possible for the quality of an impression, as, for example, of a sensation of colour, to be appreciably modified when there is a strong tendency to regard it in one particular way.

Postponing the consideration of these, we may say that certain illusions appear clearly to take their start from an error in the process of classifying or identifying a present impression. On the physical side, we may say that the first stages of the nervous process, the due excitation of the sensory centre in accordance with the form of the incoming stimulation and the central reaction involved in the recognition of the sensation, are incomplete. These are so limited and comparatively unimportant a class, that it will be well to dispose of them at once.

Confusion of the Sense-Impression.

The most interesting case of such an error is where the impression is unfamiliar and novel in character. I have already remarked that in the mental life of the adult perfectly new sensations never occur. At the same time, comparatively novel impressions sometimes arise. Parts of the sensitive surface of the body which rarely undergo stimulation are sometimes acted on, and at other times they receive partially new modes of stimulation. In such cases it is plain that the process of classing the sensation or recognizing it is not completed. It is found that whenever this happens there is a tendency to exaggerate the intensity of the sensation. The very fact of unfamiliarity seems to give to the sensation a certain exciting character. As something new and strange, it for the instant slightly agitates and discomposes the mind. Being unable to classify it with its like, we naturally magnify its intensity, and so tend to ascribe it to a disproportionately large cause.

For instance, a light bandage worn about the body at a part usually free from pressure is liable to be conceived as a weighty mass. The odd sense of a big cavity in the mouth, which we experience just after the loss of a tooth, is probably another illustration of this principle. And a third example may also be supplied from the recollection of the dentist's patient, namely, the absurd imagination which he tends to form as to what is actually going on in his mouth when a tooth is being bored by a modern rotating drill. It may be found that the same principle helps to account for the exaggerated importance which we attach to the impressions of our dreams.

It is evident that all indistinct impressions are liable to be wrongly classed. Sensations answering to a given colour or form, are, when faint, easily confused with other sensations, and so an opening occurs for illusion. Thus, the impressions received from distant objects are frequently misinterpreted, and, as we shall see by-and-by, it is in this region of hazy impression that imagination is wont to play its most startling pranks.

It is to be observed that the illusions arising from wrong classification will be more frequent in the case of those senses where discrimination is low. Thus, it is much easier in a general way to confuse two sensations of smell than two sensations of colour. Hence the great source of such errors is to be found in that mass of obscure sensation which is connected with the organic processes, as digestion, respiration, etc., together with those varying tactual and motor feelings, which result from what is called the subjective stimulation of the tactual nerves, and from changes in the position and condition of the muscles. Lying commonly in what is known as the sub-conscious region of mind, undiscriminated, vague, and ill-defined, these sensations, when they come to be specially attended to, readily get misapprehended, and so lead to illusion, both in waking life and in sleep. I shall have occasion to illustrate this later on.

With these sensations, the result of stimulations coming from remote parts of the organism, may be classed the ocular impressions which we receive in indirect vision. When the eye is not fixed on an object, the impression, involving the activity of some-peripheral region of the retina, is comparatively indistinct. This will be much more the case when the object lies at a distance for which the eye is not at the time accommodated. And in these circumstances, when we happen to turn our attention to the impression, we easily misapprehend it, and so fall into illusion. Thus, it has been remarked by Sir David Brewster, in his Letters on Natural Magic (letter vii.), that when looking through a window at some object beyond, we easily suppose a fly on the window-pane to be a larger object, as a bird, at a greater distance.[15]

While these cases of a confusion or a wrong classification of the sensation are pretty well made out, there are other illusions or quasi-illusions respecting which it is doubtful whether they should be brought under this head. For example, it was found by Weber, that when the legs of a pair of compasses are at a certain small distance apart they will be felt as two by some parts of the tactual surface of the body, but only as one by other parts. How are we to regard this discrepancy? Must we say that in the latter case there are two sensations, only that, being so similar, they are confused one with another? There seems some reason for so doing, in the fact that, by a repeated exercise of attention to the experiment, they may afterwards be recognized as two.

We here come on the puzzling question, How much in the character of the sensation must be regarded as the necessary result of the particular mode of nervous stimulation at the moment, together with the laws of sensibility, and how much must be put down to the reaction of the mind in the shape of attention and discrimination? For our present purpose we may say that, whenever a deliberate effort of attention does not suffice to alter the character of a sensation, this may be pretty safely regarded as a net result of the nervous process, and any error arising may be referred to the later stages of the process of perception. Thus, for example, the taking of the two points of a pair of compasses for one, where the closest attention does not discover the error, is best regarded as arising, not from a confusion of the sense-impression, but from a wrong interpretation of a sensation, occasioned by an overlooking of the limits of local discriminative sensibility.

Misinterpretation of the Sense-Impression.

Enough has been said, perhaps, about those errors of perception which have their root in the initial process of sensation. We may now pass to the far more important class of illusions which are related to the later stages of perception, that is to say, the process of interpreting the sense-impression. Speaking generally, one may describe an illusion of perception as a misinterpretation. The wrong kind of interpretative mental image gets combined with the impression, or, if with Helmholtz we regard perception as a process of "unconscious inference," we may say that these illusions involve an unconscious fallacious conclusion. Or, looking at the physical side of the operation, it may be said that the central course taken by the nervous process does not correspond to the external relations of the moment.

As soon as we inspect these illusions of interpretation, we see that they fall into two divisions, according as they are connected with the process of suggestion, that is to say, the formation of the interpretative image so far as determined by links of association with the actual impression, or with an independent process of preperception as explained above. Thus, for example, we fall into the illusion of hearing two voices when our shout is echoed back, just because the second auditory impression irresistibly calls up the image of a second shouter. On the other hand, a man experiences the illusion of seeing spectres of familiar objects just after exciting his imagination over a ghost-story, because the mind is strongly predisposed to frame this kind of percept. The first class of illusions arises from without, the sense-impression being the starting-point, and the process of preperception being controlled by this. The second class arises rather from within, from an independent or spontaneous activity of the imagination. In the one case the mind is comparatively passive; in the other it is active, energetically reacting on the impression, and impatiently anticipating the result of the normal process of preperception. Hence I shall, for brevity's sake, commonly speak of them as Passive and Active Illusions.[16]

I may, perhaps, illustrate these two classes of illusion by the simile of an interpreter poring over an old manuscript. The first would be due to some peculiarity in the document misleading his judgment, the second to some caprice or preconceived notion in the interpreter's mind.

It is not difficult to define conjecturally the physiological conditions of these two large classes of illusion. On the physical side, an illusion of sense, like a just perception, is the result of a fusion of the nervous process answering to a sensation with a nervous process answering to a mental image. In the case of passive illusions, this fusion may be said to take place in consequence of some point of connection between the two. The existence of such a connection appears to be involved in the very fact of suggestion, and may be said to be the organic result of frequent conjunctions of the two parts of the nervous operation in our past history. In the case of active illusions, however, which spring rather from the independent energy of a particular mode of the imagination, this point of organic connection is not the only or even the main thing. In many cases, as we shall see, there is only a faint shade of resemblance between the present impression and the mental image with which it is overlaid. The illusions dependent on vivid, expectation thus answer much less to an objective conjunction of past experiences than to a capricious subjective conjunction of mental images. Here, then, the fusion of nervous processes must have another cause. And it is not difficult to assign such a cause. The antecedent activity of imagination doubtless involves as its organic result a powerful temporary disposition in the nervous structures concerned to go on acting. In other words, they remain in a state of sub-excitation, which can be raised to full excitation by a slight additional force. The more powerful this disposition in the centres involved in the act of imagination, the less the additional force of external stimulus required to excite them to full activity.

Considering the first division, passive illusions, a little further, we shall see that they may be broken up into two sub-classes, according to the causes of the errors. In a general way we assume that the impression always answers to some quality of the object which is perceived, and varies with this; that, for example, our sensation of colour invariably represents the quality of external colour which we attribute to the object. Or, to express it physically, we assume that the external force acting on the sense-organ invariably produces the same effect, and that the effect always varies with the external cause. But this assumption, though true in the main, is not perfectly correct. It supposes that the organic conditions are constant, and that the organic process faithfully reflects the external operation. Neither of these suppositions is strictly true. Although in general we may abstract from the organism and view the relation between the external fact and the mental impression as direct, we cannot always do so.

This being so, it is possible for errors of perception to arise through peculiarities of the nervous organization itself. Thus, as I have just observed, sensibility has its limits, and these limits are the starting-point in a certain class of widely shared or common illusions. An example of this variety is the taking of the two points of a pair of compasses for one by the hand, already referred to. Again, the condition of the nervous structures varies indefinitely, so that one and the same stimulus may, in the case of two individuals, or of the same individual at different times, produce widely unlike modes of sensation. Such variations are clearly fitted to lead to gross individual errors as to the external cause of the sensation. Of this sort is the illusory sense of temperature which we often experience through a special state of the organ employed.

While there are these errors of interpretation due to some peculiarity of the organization, there are others which involve no such peculiarity, but arise through the special character or exceptional conformation of the environment at the moment. Of this order are the illusions connected with the reflection of light and sound. We may, perhaps, distinguish the first sub-class as organically conditioned illusions, and the second as extra-organically determined illusions. It may be added that the latter are roughly describable as common illusions. They thus answer in a measure to the first variety of organically conditioned illusions, namely, those connected with the limits of sensibility. On the other hand, the active illusions, being essentially individual or subjective, may be said to correspond to the other variety of this class—those connected with variations of sensibility.

Our scheme of sense-illusions is now complete. First of all, we shall take up the passive illusions, beginning with those which are conditioned by special circumstances in the organism. After that we shall illustrate those which depend on peculiar circumstances in the environment. And finally, we shall separately consider what I have called the active illusions of sense.

It is to be observed that these illusions of perception properly so called, namely, the errors arising from a wrong interpretation of an impression, and, not from a confusion of one impression with another are chiefly illustrated in the region of the two higher senses, sight and hearing. For it is here, as we have seen, that the interpretative imagination has most work to do in evolving complete percepts of material, tangible objects, having certain relations in space, out of a limited and homogeneous class of sensations, namely, those of light and colour, and of sound. As I have before observed, tactual perception, in so far as it is the recognition of an object of a certain size, hardness, and distance from our body, involves the least degree of interpretation, and so offers little room for error; it is only when tactual perception amounts to the recognition of an individual object, clothed with secondary as well as primary qualities, that an opening for palpable error occurs.

With respect, however, to the first sub-class of these illusions, namely, those arising from organic peculiarities which give a twist, so to speak, to the sensation, no very marked contrast between the different senses presents itself. So that in illustrating this group we shall be pretty equally concerned with the various modes of perception connected with the different senses.

It may be said once for all that in thus marking off from one another certain groups of illusion, I am not unmindful of the fact that these divisions answer to no very sharp natural distinctions. In fact, it will be found that one class gradually passes into the other, and that the different characteristics here separated often combine in a most perplexing way. All that is claimed for this classification is that it is a convenient mode of mapping out the subject.



A. Passive Illusions (a) as determined by the Organism.

In dealing with the illusions which are related to certain peculiarities in the nervous organism and the laws of sensibility, I shall commence with those which are connected with certain limits of sensibility.

Limits of Sensibility.

To begin with, it is known that the sensation does not always answer to the external stimulus in its degree or intensity. Thus, a certain amount of stimulation is necessary before any sensation arises. And this will, of course, be greater when there is little or no attention directed to the impression, that is to say, no co-operating central reaction. Thus it happens that slight stimuli go overlooked, and here illusion may have its starting-point. The most familiar example of such slight errors is that of movement. When we are looking at objects, our ocular muscles are apt to execute very slight movements which escape our notice. Hence we tend, under certain circumstances, to carry over the retinal result of the movement, that is to say, the impression produced by a shifting of the parts of the retinal image to new nervous elements, to the object itself, and so to transform a "subjective" into an "objective" movement. In a very interesting work on apparent or illusory movements, Professor Hoppe has fully investigated the facts of such slight movements, and endeavoured to specify their causes.[17]

Again, even when the stimulus is sufficient to produce a conscious impression, the degree of the feeling may not represent the degree of the stimulus. To take a very inconspicuous case, it is found by Fechner that a given increase of force in the stimulus produces a less amount of difference in the resulting sensations when the original stimulus is a powerful one than when it is a feeble one. It follows from this, that differences in the degree of our sensations do not exactly correspond to objective differences. For example, we tend to magnify the differences of light among objects, all of which are feebly illuminated, that is to say, to see them much more removed from one another in point of brightness than when they are more strongly illuminated. Helmholtz relates that, owing to this tendency, he has occasionally caught himself, on a dark night, entertaining the illusion that the comparatively bright objects visible in twilight were self-luminous.[18]

Again, there are limits to the conscious separation of sensations which are received together, and this fact gives rise to illusion. In general, the number of distinguishable sensations answers to the number of external causes; but this is not always the case, and here we naturally fall into the error of mistaking the number of the stimuli. Reference has already been made to this fact in connection with the question whether consciousness can be mistaken as to the character of a present feeling.

The case of confusing two impressions when the sensory fibres involved are very near one another, has already been alluded to. Both in touch and in sight we always take two or more points for one when they are only separated by an interval that falls below the limits of local discrimination. It seems to follow from this that our perception of the world as a continuum, made up of points perfectly continuous one with another may, for what we know, be illusory. Supposing the universe to consist of atoms separated by very fine intervals, then it is demonstrable that it would appear to our sensibility as a continuum, just as it does now.[19]

Two or more simultaneous sensations are indistinguishable from one another, not only when they have nearly the same local origin, but under other circumstances. The blending of partial sensations of tone in a klang-sensation, and the coalescence in certain cases of the impressions received by way of the two retinas, are examples of this. It is not quite certain what determines this fusion of two simultaneous feelings. It may be said generally that it is favoured by similarity between the sensations;[20] by a comparative feebleness of one of the feelings; by the fact of habitual concomitance, the two sensations occurring rarely, if ever, in isolation; and by the presence of a mental disposition to view them as answering to one external object. These considerations help us to explain the coalescence of the retinal impressions and its limits, the fusion of partial tones, and so on.[21]

It is plain that this fusion of sensations, whatever its exact conditions may be, gives rise to error or wrong interpretation of the sense-impression. Thus, to take the points of two legs of a pair of compasses for one point is clearly an illusion of perception. Here is another and less familiar example. Very cold and smooth surfaces, as those of metal, often appear to be wet. I never feel sure, after wiping the blades of my skates, that they are perfectly dry, since they always seem more or less damp to my hand. What is the reason of this? Helmholtz explains the phenomenon by saying that the feeling we call by the name of wetness is a compound sensation consisting of one of temperature and one of touch proper. These sensations occurring together so frequently, blend into one, and so we infer, according to the general instinctive tendency already noticed, that there is one specific quality answering to the feeling. And since the feeling is nearly always produced by surfaces moistened by cold liquid, we refer it to this circumstance, and speak of it as a feeling of wetness. Hence, when the particular conjunction of sensations arises apart from this external circumstance, we erroneously infer its presence.[22]

The most interesting case of illusion connected with the fusion of simultaneous sensations, is that of single vision, or the deeply organized habit of combining the sensations of what are called the corresponding points of the two retinas. This coalescence of two sensations is so far erroneous since it makes us overlook the existence of two distinct external agencies acting on different parts of the sensitive surface of the body. And this is the more striking in the case of looking at solid objects, since here it is demonstrable that the forces acting on the two retinas are not perfectly similar. Nevertheless, such a coalescence plainly answers to the fact that these external agencies usually arise in one and the same object, and this unity of the object is, of course, the all-important thing to be sure of.

This habit may, however, beget palpable illusion in another way. In certain exceptional cases the coalescence does not take place, as when I look at a distant object and hold a pencil just before my eyes.[23] And in this case the organized tendency to take one visual impression for one object asserts its force, and I tend to fall into the illusion of seeing two separate pencils. If I do not wholly lapse into the error, it is because my experience has made me vaguely aware that double images under these circumstances answer to one object, and that if there were really two pencils present I should have four visual impressions.

Once more, it is a law of sensory stimulation that an impression persists for an appreciable time after the cessation of the action of the stimulus. This "after sensation" will clearly lead to illusion, in so far as we tend to think of the stimulus as still at work. It forms, indeed, as will be seen by-and-by, the simplest and lowest stage of hallucination. Sometimes this becomes the first stage of a palpable error. After listening to a child crying for some time the ear easily deceives itself into supposing that the noise is continued when it has actually ceased. Again, after taking a bandage from a finger, the tingling and other sensations due to the pressure sometimes persist for a good time, in which case they easily give rise to an illusion that the finger is still bound.

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