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why we see what we do

There's a wonderful new book called "why we see what we do" by Dale Purves, a neurobiologist at Duke. He's found a way to quantify the strength of various optical illusions and has a theory that optical illusions reflect our mind's attempts to get the real information from ambiguous optical information. For example, the reason why a gray square appears brighter when surrounded by black is because we perceive the dark area as a shadow and "know" that the gray square is actually a lighter square in dim light. His evidence for this is extremely good.

His web site has interactive optical illusions that beautifully illustrate the same points. It's quite the eye opener on visual perception, particularly on how much is going on behind the scenes. It's also interesting to think of his book in relation to those old bauhaus color theory books by Albers and Itten (other favorites of mine).


-- sonke johnsen (email)

I'm ordering the book, which has a promising subtitle "An Empirical Theory .. ."

There are 2 books by Albers called Interaction of Color--the Yale paperback and the amazing silk screen print edition by Ives-Sillman. A good art library will have the amazing edition. About 8 years ago someone contructed a computer-interactive version of Albers which resembles the color-interaction effects on the Purves website.

I wrote about these matters in the chapter on color and information in Envisioning Information. It is generally the case that design elements interact, which in turn sometimes suggests that local optimization of particular design elements may result in global pessimization of all design elements. This very issue has plagued interface design, as the menu bar department optimizes their design, the desktop department optimizes their design, and so on--adding up to an over-active mess on the interface as a whole.

Thank you Kindly Contributor Sonke Johnsen, with whom I would like to discuss scuba diving sometime.

-- Edward Tufte

You won't regret getting the book. The idea is simple and obvious in retrospect and the supporting data are amazing. He's not a clear writer, but the figures are so good that you can almost skip the text.

The last time I checked, the electronic version of "interaction of color" was only for Macs. Do you know if there is a PC version?


-- sonke johnsen

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