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THE MULLER-LYER ILLUSION

Which of the two vertical line segments is longer? Although your visual system tells
you that the left one is longer, a ruler would confirm that they are equal in length. The
Muller-Lyer illusion is one of the most famous of illusions. It was created by German
psychiatrist Franz Muller-Lyer in 1889.
One role of an experimental psychologist is to find explanations for psychological
phenomena like the Muller-Lyer illusion, and then to perform experiments to show
whether or not the explanations are valid. Let us look at some possible explanations
for the Muller-Lyer illusion and some ways to experimentally test their validity.

THE DEPTH EXPLANATION


In the three-dimensional world, depth perception concerns judging distance. The
closer an object is to the retina, the larger it is on the retina. However, in the twodimensional world of the Muller-Lyer illusion, our brain makes assumptions about the
relative depths of the two shafts based on monocular (pictorial) cues. We are used to
seeing outside corners of buildings as near to us with the top and bottom of the corner
sloping out and away (like the outward slanting fins of the Muller-Lyer illusion). We
are used to seeing inside corners of buildings as farther from us with the top and
bottom of the corner sloping in somewhat towards us (like the inward slanting fins of
the Muller-Lyer illusion).

The retina is saying that the two shafts are the same length but the brain is interpreting
the Muller-Lyer as a depth issue, with the shaft that looks like an outside corner being
closer and the shaft that looks like an inside corner being farther away. In other words,
the retina is saying "two shafts equal" and the brain is saying "outside shaft shorter
than inside shaft". The brain usually wins differences like this. Thus, the brain sees
as longer than .
Psychologists have attempted to support this theory that the Muller-Lyer illusion is
caused by our experiences with outside and inside corners, by showing the illusion to
an African tribe that lived in circular huts and therefore had no perceptual experiences
with corners. People in this tribe didn't seem to be fooled by the illusion thus
supporting the "experience with corners" explanation of the illusion.
A counter-study concerned a man who was completely blind (except for light
sensitivity) from the of age 3. Recently this man received a successful corneal
transplant. Studies have shown that he is impressively free from geometrical illusions
that are associated with a suggestion of depth (such as the Shepard Tables illusion
shown below -- the two table tops are the same size).

However, he shows roughly normal susceptibility to the Muller-Lyer illusion. This


finding suggests that the Muller-Lyer illusion does not depend on processes associated
with depth perception.
It should be noted that neither the "African tribe" study nor the "blind man" study
are EXPERIMENTAL studies. To be experimental, you must have random
assignment. It is not possible to randomly assign people to be "African tribe" or
"blind".
Is an experimental test of the "depth" theory possible? For example, would doing the
Muller-Lyer illusion by substituting circles or squares for the slanting fins be a proper
experimental test of the illusion?

Some psychologists would argue "yes". Participants could be randomly assigned to


either a Muller-Lyer with fins or a Muller-Lyer with circles. Then, the results could be
compared to see if there was a difference in the performance of the two groups.
Some psychologists would argue "no". They would say that, even though the MullerLyer with the circles looks like the Muller-Lyer with the fins, they are not the same.
For examples, circles are process by "curve" detectors while fins are processed by
"angle" or "corner" detectors.

Innate feature detectors have been found in the visual system


Researchers (Hubel and Wiesel) in work on vision in frogs and cats
have found innate feature detectors in the visual system. Detailed study
revealed three basic kinds of feature-detecting cells. Simple cells respond
to a particular stimulus appearing in a circumscribed area of the field
(for example, a point of light in the upper-left quadrant). Thus, simple
cells report location as well as feature. Complex cells respond to a
particular stimulus (e.g., a point of light) appearing anywhere in the
field; thus, they report only the presence of a feature, not its location.
Hypercomplex cells respond to combinations of simple features, such as
form corners, curves, and angles.
Experimental psychologists have to be careful that they are testing theory, and not just
testing differences. On the other hand, would the "depth" theorists be logical in
arguing that even though their theory is based on "learning", the most critical
component of the theory is "unlearned" (biological feature detectors). It is required
that experimental psychologists make logically consistent arguments in support of
their point of view.
As an alternative, is it possible to experimentally test the depth theory by using only
the fins and no shafts? Is the shaft an essential part of the learning experience? Is it an
essential part of the experience of depth?

If you did this study, and you found that the illusion was the same for the group that
did the illusion with the shaft present and for the group that did the illusion with the
shaft absent, would this result invalidate the "depth" theory, or would it only show that
shafts are not necessary for depth processing?
What ways can you think of to test the "depth" theory?

THE EYE MOVEMENT EXPLANATION

This explanation suggests that the shaft ending in the inward slanting fins causes
people to perceive it as shorter because the perception of the shaft is pulled back by
the "turning back" of the fins. In other words, our eyes go out toward the point and
then come back as they follow the fin shafts back. This turning back of our eyes (or
perception) makes the shaft seem shorter. Conversely, the outward slanting fins draw
our perception on farther making that shaft seem longer.

One experimental way to test this theory is to see if flashing the illusion faster than
our eyes can move will still produce the illusion.

LIMITED VISUAL ACUITY THEORY


Visual Acuity is our ability to distinguish details in the visual field. We have good
visual acuity at the center of the fixation point, but in the peripheral region our sight is
highly blurred. In a blurred image, neighboring points or line-segments appear to
move closer together. According to this theory, when we look at the Muller-Lyer
illusion, we tend to fixate on the center of the shaft between the two endpoints.
Therefore, the fins are in our peripheral (or blurry) vision. This means that the fixation
in the fins moves away from the center of the fins. As follows:

The result is that for the outward fins, the shaft looks longer and for the inward fins,
the shaft looks shorter.

Since this theory appears to depend on the size and length of the fins (e.g. longer fins
would move the illusion farther from the center of the fins)

and not on the distance separating the two fin heads, it is possible to experimentally
test the theory by comparing short separation comparisons of of inward and outward
fin heads with long separation comparisons (while keeping the head sizes the same).

INTERTIP DISPARITY THEORY


The Intertip Disparity Theory says that the illusion is created because people
perceptually measure the illusion from the ends of the tips of the fins. Therefore, for
the inward fin part of the illusion, the maximal illusion should occur at zero intertip
distance (where fins meet to form a diamond shape) and then decrease with increasing
intertip distance. Research has shown this to be the case.

AVERAGING THEORY
The there are two kinds of Averaging theory. The first concerns the fins, only, and
claims that the fin pair affects the perceptual system's ability to measure the shaft (or
space) distance. Specifically, it says that the Muller-Lyer judgment is based on the

average of distances enclosed by the fin pair. The average distance enclosed by the
inward fins is less than the average distance enclosed by the outward fins. Therefore,
the inward fin space looks shorter than the outward fin space.
The second averaging theory claims that the ratio of fin length to shaft length
determines the strength of illusion effect. Fin length would be subtracted from shaft
length in the inward fin part of the illusion and added to the shaft length in the
outward fin part of the illusion, thus creating the illusion.
One way to test this theory would be to have two inward half-fins on the same side
(both right or both left) of the shaft, compared with two inward half-fins on opposite
sides of the shaft (one left and one right). The ratio of fin length to shaft length would
be the same in both cases. If these different configurations produced different
magnitudes (amounts) of illusions when compared to some standard, then the
averaging theory would not be supported.