Enter an Optical Illusion

Artist Julian Hoeber's "Demon Hill," now on view at the Harris Lieberman Gallery in New York City, is modelled after a roadside attraction called a "gravitational mystery spot" — where water runs uphill and gravity doesn't behave as expected. Science Friday talked to cognitive scientist Michael Landy about what happens to our perceptual system inside the exhibition.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Next up, it's time for our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora. Flora Lichtman is here.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: What have you got for us today?

LICHTMAN: Well, one thing we have is a special guest, Sci-Fri producer Christopher Intagliata is here.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Hello there.

FLATOW: Hi, again.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: He...

FLATOW: Familiar-looking face in the studio.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, we've seen him before.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: He graciously, Chris graciously participated in Video Pick of this - of the Week this week. We went to an art gallery in Chelsea to see a very unusual art exhibit. It's modeled after a roadside attraction, so already, I was like, all in.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: And basically, it's modeled after these places called gravitational mystery spots. And if you're from Santa Cruz or maybe California...

INTAGLIATA: Yeah. I mean, when you're driving around the Bay Area, you see this on the bumper stickers everywhere, the mystery spot.

LICHTMAN: The mystery spot.

INTAGLIATA: And I always wondered what it was.

LICHTMAN: So here it is. It is a place where gravity doesn't work the way you expect it to. Water runs uphill. You stand at an angle. It's very...

FLATOW: (Vocalizing theme from "The Twilight Zone") Doo-de-doo-doo, doo-de-doo-doo...

LICHTMAN: Exactly. And so Julian Hoeber, who is the artist who created this piece, went and saw one, and it blew his mind. And he thought, maybe, really, this is a gravitational anomaly. Although that made no sense. So he looked into it and he built one.

FLATOW: He built one and...

LICHTMAN: And so here it is in New York, this art exhibition, and it's called "Demon Hill." And I just want to explain to you what it looks like, and then we'll have Chris explain what it feels like.

FLATOW: All right. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

LICHTMAN: So you walk in and, of course, instead of the typical roadside attraction, this is, you know, New York art gallery...

FLATOW: Of course.

LICHTMAN: ...the Harris Lieberman Gallery, so all white walls and whatever. And you can also see the structure. And it's basically a cube, a room, a boxed-off wooden room that's been elevated on two sides. So it's sort of sitting on its corner. And you can actually see the structure lifting it up on these sides. So think of a cube, yeah, kind of like balancing on one corner. And you see this and then you walk in and something very odd happens. I don't know. How would you describe it, Chris?

INTAGLIATA: Well, I mean, you see this box on stilts and you're like, big deal, and then you walk into it. And all of a sudden, you start to feel really dizzy and - I mean, I didn't get the nausea. Did you get...

LICHTMAN: I feel woozy. I felt really seasick. I actually felt into the wall.

(LAUGHTER)

INTAGLIATA: I didn't feel the nausea at all, but I did get a headache like when you watch TV too much and, you know, sort of a trick on your eyes. You just feel strained. That's how I felt.

LICHTMAN: And it's - actually, you're walking into an optical illusion because the whole room looks correct, but it's tipped up so that gravity isn't pointing down anymore. It's sort of pointing to the side. So let me give you an example. If you have a yo-yo, which we brought...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: ...and Chris demonstrates in our video, which is on our website, it doesn't...

INTAGLIATA: Don't judge my yo-yo skill.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You know, practice...

INTAGLIATA: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: It doesn't hang straight. It hangs at an angle. And so it actually is a really cool visual effect. And the amazing part is that this trick is revealed before your eyes, and yet, you still understand it. So here's artist Julian Hoeber explaining that.

JULIAN HOEBER: This is not something based on knowing. This is an experience you can't logic your way out of.

MICHAEL LANDY: The fancy phrase people use is they're cognitively impenetrable. Meaning you can know, knowledge-wise, that what you are perceiving is wrong, but you'll still perceive it that way.

LICHTMAN: The guy talking about the fancy phrase is Michael Landy. He studies perception at NYU, and he agreed to go check this exhibit and sort of explain the science of why it works so well.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. So you can't talk yourself into it is what - you can't overcome it by...

LICHTMAN: You can't overcome it.

INTAGLIATA: No.

LICHTMAN: It hits you at your core. I mean, literally, this is your inner ear telling you gravity is one way and your eyes and your prior knowledge of rooms telling you gravity is the other way.

INTAGLIATA: And if you think about...

FLATOW: Christopher, did you try to say, I know this is an illusion?

INTAGLIATA: Well...

FLATOW: You know, I'm going to try to overcome that.

INTAGLIATA: You try to walk around and you try to act like it's normal, right?

FLATOW: Right.

INTAGLIATA: And I mean, one of the things we did is - to test this - is bring a little fluted glass in there, and we had a little thing of water. We tried to pour a glass of water, and I missed the glass.

(LAUGHTER)

INTAGLIATA: I poured it, the water went right over the rim.

(LAUGHTER)

INTAGLIATA: You can't even do normal things in there because you're so messed up, you know, between your eyes and your balance. So...

FLATOW: Right. And you can see...

INTAGLIATA: ...it's fair enough.

FLATOW: ...you can see Christopher missing the glass. And you know what's priceless, as they say on the commercial, is the expression on your face.

(LAUGHTER)

INTAGLIATA: It was a surprise. It was a total surprise. You don't expect that.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: No. Right there, it's our Video Pick of the Week up on the our website, at sciencefriday.com, and it's an art exhibit. And is it going to travel around? People might be able to walk through the room. Or is it just staying in New York for a while?

LICHTMAN: It's in New York until October 20th, at the Harris Lieberman Gallery. There's info on our website if you want to go see it. It was in L.A. before, and I think like 20,000 people went to see it. I imagine we'll see it again somewhere. But Michael Landy says that, actually, it almost works as well in pictures if not better, because you don't have your vestibular senses telling you that gravity is another way. So it just looks bizarre, which is why you should really check out the video. It is really cool to see.

FLATOW: It's our pick of the week up on our website at sciencefriday.com. You can take it along with you also as a podcast. But you did take photos of it also.

LICHTMAN: We took a lot of - we monopolized that room for hours, playing with cars and Slinkies, check it out.

FLATOW: It's - oh, seeing a slinky in that room - that's right, it's in the video - watching a Slinky do weird things, you...

LICHTMAN: It just moves across the floor.

FLATOW: It's walking in - it's walking down steps with no steps.

LICHTMAN: That's right, exactly right. Exactly right.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right. There it is, our Video Pick of the Week. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks.

FLATOW: Thank you, Christopher.

INTAGLIATA: Thank you.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for this hour.

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