The truly startling part of these illusions is, that the direct result of sensory stimulation appears to be actually displaced by a mental image. Thus, in the case of Meyer’s experiment, of looking at the distant viaduct, and of recognizing an artistic representation, imagination seems in a measure to take the place of sensation, or to blind the mind to what is actually before it.
The mystery of the process, however, greatly disappears when it is remembered that what we call a conscious “sensation” is really compounded of a result of sensory stimulation and a result of central reaction, of a purely passive impression and the mental activity involved in attending to this and classing it. This being so, a sensation may be modified by anything exceptional in the mode of central reaction of the moment. Now, in all the cases just considered, we have one common feature, a powerful suggestion of the presence of a particular object or local arrangement. This suggestion, taking the form of a vivid mental image, dominates and overpowers the passive impression. Thus, in Meyer’s experiment, the mind is possessed by the supposition that we are looking at the grey spot through a greenish medium. So in the case of the distant viaduct, we are under the mastery of the idea that what we see in the distance is a red brick structure. Once more, in the instance of looking at the picture, the spectator’s imagination is enchained by the vivid representation of the object for which the picture stands, as the marble ruins in the moonlight or the Bedouin in the desert.
It may be well to add that this mental uncertainty as to the exact nature of a present impression is necessitated by the very conditions of accurate perception. If, as I have said, all recognition takes place by overlooking points of diversity, the mind must, in course of time, acquire a habit of not attending to the exact quality of sense-impressions in all cases where the interpretation seems plain and obvious. Or, to use Helmholtz’s words, our sensations are, in a general way, of interest to us only as signs of things, and if we are sure of the thing, we readily overlook the precise nature of the impression. In short, we get into the way of attending only to what is essential, constant, and characteristic in objects, and disregarding what is variable and accidental. Thus, we attend, in the first place, to the form of objects, the most constant and characteristic element of all, being comparatively inattentive to colour, which varies with distance, atmospheric changes, and mode of illumination. So we attend to the relative magnitude of objects rather than to the absolute, and to the relative intensities of light and shade rather than to the absolute; for in so doing we are noting what is constant for all distances and modes of illumination, and overlooking what is variable. And the success of pictorial art depends on the observance of this law of perception.