Subtle misjudgments of horizontal and vertical

The Walker Shank, Tolanski and related figures

Back in 1987 James Walker and Matthew Shank in the university of Missouri were doing a study of the Bourdon illusion. In some figures they devised for comparisons in their study they noticed a new effect, quite unrelated to their study. The figure upper left is a version of their chance discovery. The centre line is objectively horizontal, but can seem to rise slightly to the right. Walker and Shank tried the effect experimentally, and found it was indeed seen by a majority, but not all of their observers.  (Note for techies:  For a PDF of their article, input 1987 as year, the authors’ names plus Bourdon and contours as keywords on the Psychonomic Society search site).

The effect seems related to the Tolanski illusion, lower left: the gaps in the sloping lines are exactly level with one another, but the right hand one looks a touch higher. Generally, our judgments of horizontal or vertical across empty space between lines with a pronounced slope seem to get just a little rotated in the direction of the slope. The effect is even stronger for me with curved lines (as bottom right) than with straight ones. I’ve even found it in informal experiments with a number of observers as upper right, when vertically positioned target dots appear rotated towards the slope of blurred or broken slanting edges in which they are embedded.

But in my version of the figure, upper left, we can also see the Poggendorff effect at work, (according to me at least). Look at the two outer, nearly horizontal arms. They are exactly aligned, but to my eye the right hand one looks higher than the left hand one. That’s just the result we would get if we deleted the middle three pairs of lines, to end up with opposed obtuse angles, in what is sometimes called an obtuse angle Poggendorff figure.

Do the Tolanski and Pogendorff illusions share a mechanism, or do we see in the top left figure both the rotation of the horizontal line, and the misalignment of the outer arms, arising by chance from different processes in the brain? We can’t yet be sure, but I reckon the same processes are most probably at work, and are to do with projecting orientation and alignment judgments across figures with powerfully competing axial emphasis. The Tolanski and Poggendorff figures present a sort of reciprocal pairing: with Tolanski figures judgments of vertical or horizontal are compromised in a figure with a dominant slant, whereas in classic versions of the Poggendorff illusion judgments of oblique alignment are rotated between vertical or horizontal lines.