And there’s some­thing in this im­age. Hint: It blends

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THERE’S AN IM­AGE HID­DEN IN THESE black-and-white blotches. Once you spot the fig­ure, that’s it: The shape will emerge, and then, try as you might, you’ll never un­see it. Con­sider your­self warned. It’s a Dal­ma­tian, bend­ing down to drink wa­ter. See it now? That’s be­cause the images we “see” are re­ally our mind’s own cre­ations.

In the early 1900s, the Ger­man psy­chol­o­gists be­hind Gestalt the­ory first in­tro­duced the Dal­ma­tian scene with this rea­son­ing: Hu­mans aren’t pas­sive re­cip­i­ents of in­com­ing images, rather we im­pose a struc­ture on what we see.

Today, we’re still piec­ing to­gether how our brains do this, but here’s our best guess: Light lands on our eyes’ reti­nal cells, which send a sig­nal to the vis­ual cor­tex, the area of the brain that heads up sight. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, other ar­eas within our brain’s cor­tex, which as­sem­ble higher-level think­ing, send pre­dic­tions down to the vis­ual cor­tex of what the pic­ture might be. So, any no­tion that a Dal­ma­tian is there primes the cor­tex to iden­tify an am­bigu­ous white stripe as a leg, the black mark above and to the left as an ear, and so on.

We can do this in­stantly, but even the sharpest im­age-recog­ni­tion soft­ware can’t. Un­til we fully grasp the neu­ral pro­cesses at play, says Dart­mouth Col­lege vis­ual sci­en­tist Howard C. Hughes, we’ll still be sharper than the bots.

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