June 2, 2011


The weather may still have occasional gray days but nature is luxuriant in its spring colors. By now the pines whose green boughs have withstood winter’s tempest are joined by the deciduous trees, their pastel greens standing in stark contrast to the conifers.  

As I walk home thinking about these contrasts, I am reminded of a magazine article I’d read earlier about the way the eye relates to light. Vision, it seems, is not as reliable a vehicle for truth as we might think. By way of example, the article displayed a picture of a checkerboard composed of dark and light brown squares.  The reader was asked to block off all but two of them. The revelation that followed was surprising. The contrasting pieces were not contrasting at all but shared the exact hue and color. Literally, I couldn’t believe my eyes! What’s more, the moment I unblocked the surrounding area, the illusion that the two subject squares were different returned. I repeated the experiment several times, knowing my eye was being tricked, but the illusion persisted. (“AARP Magazine,May/June, 2011, pg. 41)


This demonstration, meant to illustrates how bad our brains are at judging values, was created by a scientist at MIT, Edward Adelson. His example along with others appear in the book, “Priceless” by William Poundstone. The author uses them to explore the quirky aspects of the mind as he makes his case for psychophysics and the way businesses use this knowledge to determine how to set a value on their products.

The lesson I took away from my park walk wasn’t about market pricing, but it was about value. I came to appreciate how important contrasts are to the human mind.   Without them, the world seems flat and monotonous. And yes, I put a value upon that. Variations, not sameness, bring to world into focus. If this is true for color, I suspect the principle holds for ideas, too. 

The next time I hear someone espousing thoughts contrary to mine, I’ll take a deep breath and remember that differences are separate pieces of a larger truth.