The photo challenge this week is about change: a still image that captures something in flux. I’ve chosen to think about this challenge a little differently. How can something change without changing? How can you tilt your brain and see something different, and why does it matter? What I have today isn’t actually a photo, so it’s kind of cheating, but it illustrates what I want to talk about..
Do you see the word in today’s image? Perhaps you got it right away, or perhaps you have to look at it a bit. There are a number of oddly-shaped black pieces, like a game of Tetris gone awry. No word there. But if you focus on the white shapes between the black ones, a word may suddenly pop out. (If you saw the word right away, try the reverse – focus on the black shapes and try to see them as separate, solid pieces.) Just in case you’re still stuck, you can scroll down to the bottom and see a different version of the image that might help. Once you see it both ways, you’ll be able to make it pop back and forth, from a word to the black shapes and back again. Change, happening before our eyes, only nothing actually changes!
Except, of course, something does change. The most important change of all: a change of mind.
We tend to think that change happens “out there” in the world, and of course it does. Day changes to night, summer to fall, seeds to flowers. We also know that change happens inside of us, as we learn new things or form new opinions. But we often lose sight of how just changing how we look at things changes what we see. A change inside causes an apparent change outside, as black shapes become words, even though nothing is actually changing. Technically what we have here is an ambiguous image, where the change is a reversal of figure and ground, a key idea in the Gestalt psychology of perception. More fun examples can be seen in the works of M. C. Escher and in the story behind the famous FedEx logo. We tilt our brain just a little, and something new pops out that was always there but that we couldn’t see before.
These cute tricks of design and perception are fun to play with. But to me, they represent a deeper issue. How often have we told ourselves that the world is a certain way, and we know this because that’s what we see when we look at it? But what if we could tilt our brains just a little, and find something new popping out? All right, Aunt Matilda always pinched your cheek and told you to look on the bright side of life, ever cloud has a silver lining, it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and you won’t fall for that blindly cheerful malarky-but maybe you should. When you tilt your brain and see the ambiguous image differently the black shapes don’t disappear, but they reveal a different meaning held within them. When something in life is awful, changing how you think doesn’t make the awfulness go away, but maybe it can help you find some non-awfulness inside it, or maybe find a way to help you deal with the awfulness.
Let me share a personal example of this.
The story is my son’s. He is very open with others about his diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. My son is brilliant (at the age of 12 his teacher told me she believed he was the smartest kid of all 1,000+ students in the middle school). However, he has severe difficulties picking up the social cues needed to form strong relationships and becomes overly focused on very limited interests. He’s now 31 and living independently, a triumph in itself. He’s never had a girlfriend (or boyfriend, for that matter) and has no interest in one; there will be no wedding or child in his life, which breaks my heart a little. On the other hand, the existence of the Internet has allowed him to find others around the world who share his interests and to form real friendships with people he will never meet, made easier for him because all communication is typed and he doesn’t have to decipher facial expressions or body language. His obsessiveness has proved invaluable in his career as a machine operator because once he’s told how to run a particular part he will do it exactly the same way every time, making his bosses very happy. All his life I’ve learned to tilt my brain and find the strong core of what made him a great kid, makes him an adult I’m proud of.
Changing how I look at my son and his life doesn’t change his actual situation. He still spends most of his time alone in his apartment, typing with people around the world. He still takes comments more literally than others would, has to be constantly reminded about things like personal grooming that he finds boring and forgets that others care about, eats a very limited rotation of foods I’ve struggled to expand into healthier options (and I’m really glad he comes over to dinner once a week, when I can see him eat something green). The change I’m talking about is not a change in him. It’s a change in me. My choice about what to focus on, how to think about what I see.
The most important change of all.
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Change.