Writing from the Heart: Magic Eyes- Nancy Slonim Aronie

How does your perception affect what you see?

In the early ’70s, there was a book being passed around in our circle of friends called “Magic Eye Beyond 3D.” Basically it was a two-dimensional image that had a three-dimensional image hidden in the middle of the page. It was called a stereogram. People would look for a few seconds and their response was always, “Whoa! Wow! OMG! SO-o-o-o cool.” Everyone but me. I never got what they got. They said you had to be stoned to have it work. So I got stoned. It still didn’t work.

Once in a while I would try Magic Eye again, but to no avail. When it was my turn, I had about a hundred instructors. “Closer, Nance, pull it closer. Nancy! Make it so it’s totally out of focus. Now pull it back slowly. See the image? It pops right out. You don’t see the bunny rabbit? Honestly, you don’t see?” Honestly, no I didn’t see. I never saw, and I always tried to laugh it off, but I felt left out, and to be blunt, stupid.

So a few days ago, when I was looking for a different book, guess what popped off the shelf into my hands. I took it and threw it on my reading pile. Maybe after 40 years, I would give it another try. Maybe my brain had shifted into a new gear. I opened the book slowly and carefully and for the first time, lo and behold, sitting here all by myself, I got it! A sailing vessel big as life emerged out of the mass of squiggles!

Why, I wondered, had I had so much trouble back then when just now it came so easily? So I Googled stereograms and a whole long explanation of optical illusions came up.

Wikipedia said the visual system is what makes things appear different from reality. According to one expert, there are three kinds of classifications for this phenomenon — physical, physiological, and cognitive. The one that grabbed me was the cognitive classification, because it said that it was the result of unconscious inferences. What unconscious inference could have had such a strong hold on me?

And then I remembered something my father had said when I was about 11. I was taller than most everyone my age, and even taller than some of the teachers and many adults. One day my dad took me aside and said, When anyone walks into a room, you’re going to be the first thing they see.

After many years of introspection and good therapy, I learned the effect those words had had. Thinking back now, when all my friends were trying to show me how the Magic Eye worked, I was probably using all my energy to look as if I were concentrating instead of actually concentrating.

I weep for that young girl who must have spent hours, probably years, worried about your perception of her.

Thank God at some point I heard that fabulous liberator of all liberating lines: What other people think of me is none of my business. And I repeated it over and over, and I still, when self-consciousness strikes, remember it’s a mantra of sorts.

Since my Magic Eye breakthrough, I’ve shown the book to three people. My 10-year-old grandson got them all within seconds, but the two others, both adults, couldn’t see anything but the mass of repetitive designs. Both reported they felt too much pressure from my being there with an expectation. So there it is; the perception of being perceived is not easy.

So how do I explain my recent success? I guess my brain shifted gears, the mantra took hold, and my heart had found some wisdom.

Because if you had been in my neighborhood Monday morning, you wouldn’t have had to strain your ears to hear my voice shouting from the rafters; “Whoa! OMG! Wow, soooo cool!”


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Nancy Slonim Aronie is the founder of The Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard and the author of Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but gorgeously yours) Life Story and Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. She has been a commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and she was a visiting writer at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Nancy wrote a monthly column in McCall’s magazine; she was the recipient of the Eye of The Beholder Artist in Residence Award at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; and she was recognized for excellence in teaching for all three years she taught with Robert Coles at Harvard University.

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