OPTICAL ILLUSIONS AND BRAIN TEASERS
The shifting orbs of light that appear behind your eyelids cannot stay. One has to open one’s eyes at some point,
leaving the memory of a purple smudge ringed in amber, an unreal bruise. The first time I saw agate, a psychedelic
slice of stone in a museum gift shop, I thought it was a creative rendering of those eye-smudges, not something
with origins in a geode. The eyelid images, called phosphenes—from the Greek for “light”and “to show”—can
appear when the retina’s stimulated by pressure. For instance, rubbing tired eyes, or seeing stars after getting
conked on the head. Sometimes they just show up if your eyes are closed longer than a blink. The colorful bursts,
which appear despite no light actually entering the retina, are also called prisoner’s cinema, a nod to one’s view in
dark, isolated confinement.
A light show, absent light, screened on the back of eyelids. Vivid, striated color hidden within rock. Things that
abide beneath the surface find a way of showing up. What’s the tipping point? What number of light bursts or
cracked-open rocks; how many locked-away pieces emerging before they constitute a pattern? How many stakes in
the ground before the mind tries to connect the dots? To assemble some kind of order and reason? Even as synapses
fire, begin forming bridges between scenes initially perceived as random or isolated, I’m wary of reading into
things. Of ascribing motives or meaning where none exist. I walk the foggy perimeter of this new-forming thing
The brain is known to see patterns where none exist. Called pareidolia (from the Greek for “instead of” and
“form”), it’s the phenomenon that occurs when we see shapes in the clouds or perceive faces in inanimate objects.
It’s creating a pattern in the absence of one. The brain’s wired to humanize, to recognize kinship. It will even blur
the reality of an electrical outlet or a house’s windows, to gaze upon a face.
* * *
What’s to believe? The working hands, the steady voice, the sad eyes. You fed the birds with my daughter. I have
the picture: her tiny palm cupping a tablespoon of seeds, you clutching the large bag at its neck like a money sack.
You’re both wearing orange shirts. But what does the photo document? Once I thought it was love. Really, it just
means you went outside together in summer. And I was there taking the picture because the moment seemed
important. Because I thought it was love. If I stare long enough, will the photo reveal something? Will I learn to
reinterpret your grip on the seed sack, your face turned in profile? I don’t have the next photo, which would have
been of you leaving.
Another brain phenomenon—when given a passage to read that purposely uses misspelled words, as long as
the first and last letters of the word are correct, the brain fills in the rest. Tuhs, tihs sneentce is qtiue esay to raed.
Beginnings and endings, especially when in context, matter more than what happens in the middle. We identify
what is supposed to be, what makes the most sense, rather than what truly is. The brain instinctively wants to make
meaning, even when the evidence is a literal jumble.
Mom wants me to be okay. Wants me to tell her I’m okay. That nothing happened. Or, if something happened, it
didn’t matter. It was a blip. A hiccup. Not a seismic shift leaving me doubting my mind, my ability to perceive the
I’m ashamed I cannot give this to her. It is, would be, easy to lie. To say it’s all good. She asks for so little.
What’s a soul, after all? It can’t be seen, measured, photographed. I could crumple mine in one hand, a draft that
shouldn’t have been printed. Telling her I’m fine is the equivalent.
Yet I can’t lie to her. I sink in my refusal. Become aware of its shame spreading, aching, like internal bleeding.
But it’s not wholly that. Uncomfortable, yes. But also—forming integrity from ashes, perhaps. Changing from the
inside, vibrant colors within a rock. A cosmic light show behind closed doors. I’m not like you.
You said you would help. You came when I was hands-and-knees scrubbing the floor (if not for spite, the house
would never be clean), to say you would help. What does that even mean? How can you help now?
I cried, seeing you again in the orange shirt, cried because you interrupted the work I had
little time to finish.
You acted like nothing was wrong, standing in my doorway with outstretched arms
loaded with a Costco-sized case of bottled water. You don’t get away scot-free. You don’t get off
while we clean your mess.
There’s a small kernel, hard, hard on the outside, of forgiveness; its hardness lodges in my chest. I don’t want it
there. I want to smite it, with all the Old Testament wrath that connotes.
But that would be killing part of myself. Part of what makes me human. Eventually I’ll want to be human
again. So I cry, on my knees, clutching a soapy scrub brush.
It’s been almost a year since that offer. Since you stood in my doorway with your hands out, full of water, saying
you were here to help.
There’s another brain teaser where color words (such as green, yellow, red) are written in a different color font
(such as pink, blue, black). One needs to identify the actual color of the word, but the brain’s tendency is to read the
word itself, regardless of ink color. A reader must be slow and deliberate to achieve accuracy, to name each color
correctly. When one’s asked to say the word, as opposed to its hue, a reader does so with much greater speed.
This task is difficult because the brain’s being asked to use both hemispheres, right and left, simultaneously.
The creative right hemisphere is engaged in the abstract task of color recognition, while the logical left hemisphere
wants to read the words. This tandem work takes significant, intentional effort.
What does a photo show, really? The color of a shirt? That you’re not looking into the camera? It’s always a
profile as you turn away.
You gave us part.
Or maybe you were ashamed.
Shadows need light to exist, and God, you fed off her light. Her love.
In the end it was always late afternoon, her innocence finally making you perceive the long shadow you cast.
We didn’t see it. You held yourself so we were never able. We saw the bookends of the words and filled in the rest,
supplied what we thought should be there rather than seeing the jumble within. We saw a socket and recognized it
as a face.
You could have helped me. You alone would have understood.
You were too busy misdirecting.
I would say this but it is harsh. Unfair. I’d want to take it back later. You were sick. One
doesn’t punish the sick.
So much can’t be said, can’t be helped (a voice screaming underwater, it’s not too
late—). I could hit pause and say, here, this is where you reverse course.
I cannot give my mother the one thing she asks of me.
The sad eyes, the turning away, my mannerisms now. Sitting behind a computer, preoccupied, this is me now. I
see you so clearly, sitting there, paused over your work, even though you’re gone. That’s a trick of the mind too. If
you stare at an image long enough, it seems to appear even when you look away. (Palinopsia. Greek for “again”
and “seeing.”) Is that what’s happening here?
I don’t know the flavor of your bad, whatever made your sideways happen in the first place. I don’t know
what drove you underground. I suppose I don’t need to (the mind wants to make sense, make meaning even where
none exists; I recoil at my unknowing). It wouldn’t make any difference. Because no matter what happened in the
before, I have the reality of the after.
You did what you needed to survive. A poor, small child burdened with survival. A
secretive home, an odor of fried fish. You were a miracle then.
I’m empty-handed. I don’t trust my own judgement. I doubt everything I see because the mind plays tricks.
The lizard part of the brain knows. A clawed toe in the water. A forked tongue to check temperature. Covered in
a pattern of scales the same sequence as a sunflower’s seeds, same as pinecone, as colony of honeybees, nautilus
shell, cochlea, a spiraling cosmos. A golden swirl of light on the back of an eyelid.
A hard kernel lodged in my chest. It will germinate. I’m not the one to provide water. I just need to tolerate it;
give it a home. Time.
You said, with outstretched arms, you were here to help.
Kate McCorkle writes with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio; her fictionand essays have appeared in
several publications. Kate’s currently working on a book-length thing about her time as a 9/11 infantry wife. A
mother of four, she swims to keep insanity at bay. @Kate_Mc22