Artist M.C. Escher created disturbing illustration in 1960 after discovering something known as the Penrose stairs. His illustration, Ascending and Descending, depicted a four-sided staircase that created an eternal loop. Every staircase in the loop appears to ascend to a higher level. Unfortunately, what Escher depicted is impossible.
The Penrose stairs are a classic example of what is known as the ‘impossible object’. It is nothing more than an optical illusion created because the brain cannot reconcile the difference between 3D reality and its perception of a 2D image.
What if we took a classic illustration of the Penrose stairs and added a balustrade that includes wrought iron spindles? Would there be enough additional intricacy to help the brain get past this optical illusion? It would be interesting to find out.
A Perception Problem
Looking at Ascending and Descending is unsettling for some people. The longer they gaze at it, the more they know that something just isn’t right. Yet their brains are not capable of reconciling the conflict within. It can be so unsettling as to force them to have to look away. So what’s going on?
Our brains assume straight lines and 90° corners based on Euclidean geometry. Gazing at the Penrose stairs illustration leads the brain to assume that every landing creates a 90° angle between joined sets of stairs. It also assumes that the lines along which those stairs ascend and descend are straight.
This assumption causes a conflict. If the lines were indeed straight and the angles a perfect 90° each, it would be impossible for each flight of stairs to continually ascend. You cannot keep walking this loop and get higher with each ascended step. Thus, the brain doesn’t know what to do with the image.
The interesting thing is this: if you can manage to step back and look at it from a wider angle that allows you to avoid focusing on a single landing or set of stairs, your eyes might eventually pick up the fact that the object in question isn’t truly square. Nor are the steps really ascending or descending. Even the lines are not straight.
Adding Wrought Iron Spindles
Though it has never been proven, adding wrought iron spindles to a Penrose stairs illustration may break up the angles and lines enough to destroy the illusion. In real life, wrought iron spindles are often used to add definition to an otherwise plain space.
The Iron Spindle out of Atlanta, Georgia installs wrought iron and wood spindles in area homes. You could visit their website and see photographs of completed projects. In doing so, you could clearly see how wrought iron spindles add definition. The more ornate the spindles, the more definition they add.
Penrose stairs illustrations rely on a certain measure of simplicity to fool the brain. The less definition within the staircase loop, the harder it is to determine what is going on. It stands to reason that adding more definition would change the equation.
What the Brain Perceives
Considering the possibility of adding wrought iron spindles to a basic Penrose stairs illustration, forces one to step back and think about how the brain perceives what the eyes see. This artistic principle does not apply just to strange illustrations from a Dutch graphic artist. It also applies to the real world.
Wrought iron spindles can change the way the brain perceives your staircase at home. Remove those spindles and replace them with plexiglass sheets and your brain will perceive something entirely different. In the end, what is perceived is in the eye and brain of the beholder.