A couple of weeks ago, I went to the beach for a long weekend. On my first day at the beach, late in the day after the crowds had left, I stood in the sand along the shore, close enough to the water where my feet would leave footprints without the tide immediately washing them away.
I closed my eyes as I stood in Tadasana — mountain pose. I felt my weight underneath me, noticing how I was holding my weight.
I tend to walk heavy on my heels and wanted to even out my stance.
After standing like that for about a minute, I stepped away and looked at the footprints to see if I could read in them any clues to how I had been holding my weight. I took a picture of the footprints so I could look more closely later.
The Changing Footprints
Later, when I looked through my pictures from the beach, what I saw in the photograph kept changing. One moment it would look like a footprint and the next moment it looked like a raised sand foot — as if I had packed a foot mold with sand and placed it on the flat sand, the way you’d build a sandcastle.
Intrigued by this, I became curious. I took more pictures over the next two days. As it happened, each day I took photos at a different time of day.
As I looked through my photos over the weekend and since then, some footprints appear to me almost always as raised, some almost always as indented. Others switch back and forth.
I showed the pictures to my brother, sister-in-law, and nephews. There was no picture for which we could unanimously agree on whether the footprints appeared “normal” — i.e., indented — or raised.
My nephews, by the way, thought this was the coolest thing ever. They think I am a magician.
Since then I’ve shown the pictures to friends and posted them on Instagram. Everyone sees each footprint differently.
It’s like that dress that made the rounds a few years ago.
Expectations Create Resistance
The scientific explanation is that this illusion results from where our brain expects the light to come from.
As explained on The Naked Scientists:
Our brains have a bias toward top down illumination which means that the brain tends to assume light is coming from above. This bias is so strong that it often competes and overcomes the clues our vision is giving us about relative depths. So when light comes from a slightly different angle [as it would early or late in the day], in the case of the footprints in low sun, our brain tries to tell us they’re convex instead of concave.
This is a great example of how our expectations for how something should be create resistance to what is actually happening in the moment. This resistance causes our suffering.
Science Doesn’t Explain Everything
The science reasonably explains the illusion in my pictures from Thursday and Saturday.
The Thursday pictures were late in the day:
The Saturday pictures were early in the morning.
But on Friday, I did this experiment in the middle of the afternoon. So I don’t have a good explanation for why the illusion happens on all of the pictures. Or why everyone sees it differently.
I always am curious to understand the reason why, but the reason doesn’t matter so much. The point is that the mind deceives us.
The Mind Contradicts What We Know
I can understand how the mind can play tricks on us when we weren’t there in person. The brain relies on shortcuts to make sense of the world. Sometimes those shortcuts are wrong.
But this is different for me. I was there. These are not just footprints. These are my footprints. I took the pictures. My body knows they are footprints because it lived the experience of creating the footprints.
And yet I still see them in some pictures as raised above the sand.
This is how easily our mind can override what we know in our physical body.
What You See is an Illusion
Your mind spends all day spinning stories and creating expectations that influence what you see around you. You’re not even aware of most of those stories; they happen below the realm of your conscious thoughts.
Seeing is believing, as the saying goes.
What we see shapes our beliefs, which influence our emotions, thoughts and actions.
The problem is that what we see isn’t always real. It’s an illusion.
If our mind can trick us into seeing something that’s not real and not true even when we physically know that it’s not real — because we had the physical experience of it — consider how easily our mind can trick us into believing things that aren’t true when we don’t have the firsthand experience of it.
And because our beliefs shape our thoughts, this means that we cannot believe our thoughts either.
Nothing is real. Everything is an illusion.
So what do you do?
Stop believing what you see.
How do you see the footprints in the photos above? I’d love to know what you see in each photo. Please share in the comments!