How To See The World With “Magic Eyes”

An Essay About the Weirdness of Vision, Encountering the Unknown, and 1990’s Kitsch

If you came to our house at any point in the 1990’s you would have seen a small curation of ‘Magic Eye’ posters and books.

Magic Eye posters, and their secret three-dimensional worlds, hidden beneath computer-rendered quasi-psychadelia, were a legitimate 90’s craze.

I you can’t see this… you won’t hear me speak of it’s deeper imagery.

Whether you could see the hidden 3D image was a matter of bragging rights. If you could not see the magic picture, it felt like you were locked out of a secret society. Indeed, those who could not see, were not worthy.

After we brought home our first Magic Eye poster from Golf Mill Mall I stared at it in frustration for hours.

My muggle eyes could not complete the magical leap and hold the 3D image for more than a moment. Ripples — brief edges of something — that’s all I could see for days.

Until finally… magic happened and I could see.

“Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see.” — Carl Jung

Recalling those magical days reminded me of a similar story involving sight — a legend, something that supposedly occurred 500 years before Magic Eyes.

In Fourteen Hundred And Ninety-Two…

According to legend, when Christopher Columbus landed the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria in the new world, the Native Americans on the shores of San Salvador couldn’t see the ships.

The theory is that the Native Americans had no frame of reference for “ships.” To put it another way, they had never seen a ship, therefore they could not see a ship.

In essence, they had no existing mental framework of “the thing we call a ship.” As such, their eyes and brain could not complete the circuit. Thus they couldn’t comprehend — and see — the massive ships anchored yards away in the harbor.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “how could someone not see three huge ships?

That’s a rational response, because the idea of “non-seeing” is terrifying.

This inability to see leads to several questions. The first question is, “what else can’t we see?”

What mode of being prevents sight? Is there a mental circuit breaker that “trips sight” when we get overloaded?

Cognitive Dissonance

One possible explanation for the Native American’s “non-seeing” is cognitive dissonance.

Psychologist Leon Festinger introduced his theory of cognitive dissonance to the mainstream in 1957. Essentially, cognitive dissonance is information that doesn’t align with our existing worldview.

This dissonance creates mental discomfort. And it follows that our psyche goes to great lengths to ease and protect us from pain.

“Coping with the nuances of contradictory ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. It requires energy and effort to sit with those seemingly opposite things that all seem true. Festinger argued that some people would inevitably resolve dissonance by blindly believing whatever they wanted to believe.”

But can cognitive dissonance become so great that it literally makes us blind?

Mental Scaffolding

Another possibile explanation for the Native American’s “non-seeing” can be explained by “Scaffolding.” This concept is used alongside another formal education theory called the “zone of proximal development.”

Scaffolding is a way to explore the unknown with confidence by leaning on prior successes. The prior success is the proximal experience to which you relate your new experience.

For example, think about the career of a professional baseball player through increasingly difficult levels of competition. Scaffolding is how a Rookie has confidence he can comprehend competing in his first major league at-bat. Likewise, a veteran might use scaffolding to build the confidence that he can succeed in his last at-bat of the World Series.

Even though one has not had (known) a specific experience, success can never the less be found in the unknown by scaffolding from previous (known) experiences.

So perhaps the Native Americans couldn’t scaffold enough to see the Spanish Armada because they had no previous experience remotely close enough on which to build a framework of comprehension.

Into the (Known vs) Unknown

Either way, a critical disconnect had to have occurred in the minds of the Native Americans. occur between what we know — and what we cannot even fathom.

It suggests that if the leap is too great then our mind’s process of tethering the-unknown-to-the-familiar can simply fail.

Perhaps for that reason the gap between the known and unknown has long been a siren song for humans.

The Doors of Perception

Jim Morrison named his 1960’s rock band The Doors, as an homage to the psychadelic exploration of the inner unknown found in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.

It’s worth pointing out that Huxley was influenced by (built scaffolding off) the exploration of the spiritual unknown of philosopher poet William Blake.

Blake himself is said to have been influenced by the Classical Greek and Biblical scholars.

Yet Christianity was informed obviously by Judaism. And in reality, we see the tradition of exploring the inner unknown spans back to the dawn of civilization itself.

The Johari Window

The Johari Window is a philosophical thought-exercise that expands the known and the unknown the distinctions into four categories:

  1. Arena
  2. Blind Spot
  3. Facade
  4. Unknown

The Johari window’s “unknown” quadrant is similar to Psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of the “unconscious mind,” which he described as the “unconscious part of us that neither ourselves nor others see.”

The Rumsfeldian “Unkown-Unknown”

Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, might have called the Spanish Armanda an unknown-unknown. Rumsfeld once played with the Johari Window during a press conference,

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.”

Six Degrees of Google Bacon

By comparison, more of us know more stuff than ever before in history. This is thanks to the internet, and our ability to look up anything bit of information at any time on our smartphones.

That said, while we may not always remember where we left our phone, there’s nevertheless, an underlying confidence that someone (or something) — somewhere inside that phone — knows everything we don’t.

In short, the Smartphone Era fills us with the sense that (to reference more 90’s kitsch) we’re only six degrees of Google-Bacon from knowing anything.

Francis Bacon might have said, “knowledge is power.” But six degrees of google bacon builds on that with the suggestion that knowledge is the right search term.

Black Swans

In essence, we assume that for every unknown (be it the depths of Space, the depths of the Ocean, or the depths of your Unconscious) there’s a Tiger Team, in a room, somewhere, studying it.

Because humans are enamored with the unknown, we study it. We are fascinated by the edge cases, the outliers, and the rogue waves.

We call these unforeseen events “the nonlinear dynamics” of life on Earth. We then give these events the names of metaphorical beasts, calling them Black Swans or Dragon Kings.

The unknown is altogether terrifying, and the source of much anxiety. But conversely, we also love the unknown for its great potential.

We love to predict things, set goals and hatch plans for the future. That’s why humans love to gamble, buy stocks, pursue dreams, make business plans, and pray.

Indeed, whether it’s an Omnipotent God, the Third Eye, the Eye of Horus, the Eye of Sauron, the Eye of the Illuminati, or the All-Seeing Eye on the Dollar Bill, one thing is clear — sight itself is universally worshiped.

Among mortals, those with an ability to see into the unknown with any clarity are held in high esteem. Those who risk greatly — and succeed — are rewarded handsomely, and perhaps even remembered for it.

Sometimes, if you risk sailing off the flat edge of the world, you might discover an entire hemisphere, and they’ll name the capital of Ohio after you.

To illustrate this further, when artists, team coaches, or business leaders prove particularly insightful, people will often say, “She has vision” or “He’s a visionary!

For example, Warren Buffet, one of the most famous investors in history is called, “the Oracle of Omaha.”

The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey described this “vision worship” to Joe Rogan in a podcast interview:

We have to hone our power of observation. Hone our power of connecting-the-dots and looking at all the patterns and what people are saying… What’s the question behind the question? What’s the statement behind the statement?”

Honing one’s power of observation and pattern recognition may tangentially help boost your company’s Q3 stock price — but in fact, these are much older human powers, sharpened by natural selection.

Snake Detection Theory

Here’s a question, why did human sight evolve the way it did? Other animals, like deer and dogs, have a great sense of smell but terrible sight compared to us.

Anthropologist Lynne Isbell proposed the “Snake Detection Theory.” She theorizes that sight human sight developed in relationship to our oldest predator. And when Isbell says “oldest,” she means going back to when human primates lived with snakes up in the trees.

Snake Detection Theory suggests that human vision evolved, specifically, in order to identify the scaled skin and movement patterns of snakes.

“To pick out camouflaged snakes, you need great close-range vision. To spot snakes better, primates evolved to have color vision and forward-facing eyes, which improves depth perception and allows 3D vision.” — Joseph Bennington-Castro

This 3D snake is only visible with the 3D vision you got from snakes. How’s that for magic on magic on magic?

Modern Snakes

Then again, most snakes we battle now are symbolic. Modern man is more likely to ignore the advice of their primary care physician and kill themselves via a sugary western diet, than encounter a deadly snake.

“Ignored reality transforms itself (reverts back) into the great goddess of chaos, the great reptilian monster of the unknown — the great predatory beast against which mankind has struggled since the dawn of time.” — Jordan Peterson

All too often, we’re haunted by the unknown, unconscious snakes living in our midst. But as has been noted, sometimes you just need to ask better questions. Perhaps we’d be better served to see that bowl of pasta as a bowl of snakes?

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman

Perhaps, then, the definition of great vision is merely the ability to clearly identify, and appropriately react to, the metaphorical snakes in our metaphorical trees — the metaphorical Armadas anchored in our metaphorical harbors.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” — Carl Jung

The Shaman

According to the Columbus legend, a Shaman was the first to finally see the enormous ships anchored in the harbor.

It is said that as the Shaman stared into the sea, he eventually noticed an odd ripple pattern on the water.

From those ripples, all of a sudden, the fleet of ships came into focus. Magic eyes.

After that the Shaman helped everyone in his tribe to read the pattern of the water until they too could see the ships.

Thus, two incredible acts of vision met in the new world — one by Columbus, and one by the Shaman.

Mark Twain and the Dead Language of Water Reading

In Life On The Mississippi, Mark Twain’s wrote about the arduous task of becoming a riverboat pilot. The most important skill was reading the surface of the water for information about what lurked beneath the surface.

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.” — Mark Twain

Knowing Twain, this passage was surely an allusion to the beginning of the Bible.

“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water.” — Genesis 1:2

It’s been said that the face of God is unknowable. And yet, although I likely suffer from much cognitive dissonance, I’ve seen patterns and felt the spirit.

Perhaps we’re too wrapped up in sight to forget we have other means of sensing our world.

Write What You Don’t Know, About What You Know

Writers know Twain’s old chestnut, Write what you know.

But I recently came across a better one by writer Eileen Pollack

Write what you don’t know, about what you know.

It captures the essence of magical sight and encourages us to use scaffolding to explore the unknown.

In the final analysis, how do we push our minds to see into the unknown? How do we identify the snake and recognize the armada? And how do we read the Spirit of God at work in the world?

  1. Ask better questions
  2. Look for the patterns
  3. Look for the ripples
  4. In short, use your magic eye ;)

Thanks for reading.

Pattern recognition is the task of the Artist. This is the pattern recognition you’re looking for.

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