The Friday Fillip

Lawyers aren’t allowed to hit people in order to win cases (at least not since peine forte et dure was abolished in the UK in 1772 — a mere 238 years ago!). I used to remind my students of this when encouraging them to pay more careful attention to their writing, their true tool of persuasion. That, and their thinking, of course. Which brings me to brains and the perpetually surprising fact that they can be so easily fooled.

We’ve all seen optical illusions, where this looks longer than that although they’re really both the same length. If you’d like to refresh your visual sense of wonder, here are ten of your classic sight puzzlers. But it’s not often that lawyers get to build an argument on shades of grey — literally, I mean. (Or should that be graphically?) No, we tend to rely more on language, and the spoken sort much of the time.

Disturbing, then, that our “ears” can be deceived. The best illustration of this fact is the McGurk effect, best because it’s stubborn, persisting despite the fact that we know it’s happening. And one of the best demonstrations of this effect is to be found on a video taken from the BBC show, Horizon:

I found that I could switch the effect on and off by closing my eyes. Which, I suppose, is simply one way of removing a conflicting stimulus.

There are other audio illusions, but none to my mind as compelling as McGurk’s. You’ll find ten of them, if you follow the link, nearly all of which deal with music. But one, the phantom words illusion, takes us into our realm. (The explanation is here.) The incessant repetition in the illusion is hypnotic, and could, I suppose, be used to lull a judge or jury, or, alternatively, to drive them mad. But I wasn’t very successful at having phantom words appear, this despite the fact that my aging ears now hear the damndest things when young people mumble.

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