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When Groucho Marx observed, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” he made two essential points about the effect of context on perception. The first point is that an isolated stimulus, such as the word flies, is ambiguous and must be interpreted in context. The second point is that this disambiguation process is normally so efficient and so accurate that we are unaware that it is occurring. On those rare occasions when context does not immediately resolve an ambiguity, we may be amused by our error.

Figure 1 illustrates the critical role that context plays in visual perception. The figure is intended to depict the view of a train engineer who must decide whether the obstacles on the track could derail the train. ...

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