When I saw OK Go’s ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ a few days ago, I was stunned.  If you aren't one of the 8+ million people that has seen this viral music video yet, you’re in for a visual treat.

OK Go is known for creative videos, but this is the band's richest musical collage of optical illusions so far.  The most amazing part is that it was done … in ONE TAKE!

Over 7.5 million viewers saw this extraordinary video in the first week it was posted.

And just newly released, OK Go uploaded this equally splendid video that gives us a ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ look... 

Just a lucky coincidence?

OK Go posted ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ on June 17.  I wonder if they knew this is a significant date for Gestalt psychology?  Important enough to be in the APA’s historical database for June 17:

“ June 17, 1924.  Robert M. Ogden of Cornell University wrote to German psychologist Kurt Koffka, inviting him to become a visiting lecturer. This was the first step... that brought Gestaltists Koffka, Köhler, Wertheimer, and Lewin to America ” (Street, 2007)

Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler are key figures in Gestalt psychology who laid the groundwork for what we know about perception – especially how we organize visual elements into meaningful wholes.  Central to their work is the idea of ‘figure’ versus ‘ground’  – or how we distinguish the main focus (or figure) from the background or landscape in which it is set (ground).

They were also interested in perceptual illusions, influenced by psychologist Edgar Rubin who created many figure/ground illusions such as the Rubin vase, which now appears in every introductory psychology book.

Here's a modern version- are these columns or five tall standing figures with bowed heads?  That depends on what you take to be figure vs. ground.

Visual illusion (Creative Commons license) https://www.flickr.com/photos/shashachu/443215138/


OK Go's ‘The Writing on the Wall’ plays with figure/ground relations.  Many illusions in this brilliant music video ambiguate, and then disambiguate, what is foreground versus background.

This is especially well illustrated in the illusion that “the writing’s on the wall” – as it never really is.   In every appearance of the written word - in the title, the blurbs in the middle, and the amazing reveal at the end – the writing’s never on the wall.

Instead, the words blend figure and ground into single alignment.  The illusion works – and then is dismantled before our eyes – as the movement of objects or camera disentangle what is foreground and background.

Figure and ground seem to dissolve into each other as the musicians emerge from the red, blue, yellow shapes.

Ambiguity of where figure and ground separate is pushed even further with single images that blend foreground with distant surfaces (floors, walls):  Blue spots, a network of cubes, a ladder, green checkered tiles, and a row of people that appear to stand together.  And it’s brilliantly captured at 02:47, in the aerial image of a multi-layered apparatus that “flattens out” into a representation of drummer Tim Nordwind’s bearded face.

Screen capture of OK Go's 'The Writing's on the Wall'

The walkthrough also takes us through the development of art - from basic shapes, to patterns (dots, stripes), to 3D (or not) cubes, geometric sculptures, and finally to representations of the human face and full body figures.

The music is not just an accompaniment to the collage of optical illusions and paradoxes, but an integral part of the work.  The song is about miscommunication that can go on in a relationship.  (Or is the idea of two people really ‘getting each other’ merely an illusion?)

The result is wonderfully perplexing, a delicious trick of the senses.   And a fitting tribute to the June 17 landmark in Gestalt psychology.

© 2014 Siu-Lan Tan

My previous post "Why you can't take a pigeon to the movies" can be found by clicking here and my Blog is here 

Book:  The Psychology of Music in Multimedia  

Book:   Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance   


Street, W. R. (2007, October 4). June 17 in Psychology. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from the American Psychological Association Historical Database Web site at Central Washington University: http://www.cwu.edu/~warren/calendar/cal0617.html

Street, W. R. (1994). A chronology of noteworthy events in the history of American psychology. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

OK Go band members are Damian Kulash, Tim Nordwind, Dan Konopka, Andy Ross and their website is http://okgo.net/

‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ official video


Behind The Scenes official video


Figure-ground illusion:


About the Author

Siu-Lan Tan, Ph.D.

Siu-Lan Tan, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Kalamazoo College and is the first author of Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance.

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