Into the Vortex: Cognitive Laziness in Gold Hill, OR

March 23rd, 20125:27 pm @

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Judging height at the Oregon Vortex.

In the Oregon Vortex weird things happen. These two people are pretty much the same height. Right?

Okay, I kid you not. I’ve been to a place where balls roll uphill, broomsticks stand on end, people grow taller just by taking a few steps, and the earth’s magnetic field causes you to sway slowly in a circle as you stand in one place. It’s the Oregon Vortex in Gold Hill, Oregon and I am not quite sure how all these things happen but I can tell you I witnessed them with my own senses.

Like the others who were with me on the tour, I spent a good deal of time grinning like a fool and intermittently saying things like “wow” and “cool” and “that’s bizarre!”

Oregon vortex height change

Not when they switch positions. This is the power of the vortex!

For an admission price of $9.75, a 45 minute tour reveals a host of anomalies that occur in “the vortex” which is purported to be an invisible force field, spherical in shape, half above the ground and half below. Within the vortex is a whirlpool of force that plays havoc with the laws of physics and makes you doubt the evidence of your own eyes – if you are so inclined.

Weirdness, and More Weirdness

In the 1920’s a geologist and erstwhile physicist named John Litster stumbled onto the ¾ acre plot and developed it as a tourist attraction. Prior to that it was the location of a gold assay office which still stands on the site, albeit in a dilapidated condition, and now does service as the so-called House of Mystery.

House of Mystery at the Oregon Vortex.

The house of mystery. Enter if you dare.

In the former assay office, which sits a kilter, having been pushed off its foundation by a landslide, the floor is heaved up, sloping dramatically from one corner to the other. Standing around inside, people appear to be pitched over at 45-degrees. A plumb line suspended from the ceiling appears to veer out.

Among the weird phenomenon on display is a reversal of the perception of angles. Downward slopes are actually upward slopes with the result that balls apparently roll uphill. Finally, as a kicker, the tour guide stands a broom on its bristly end and it remains standing there, flagrantly violating the laws of gravity.

Let’s be clear, the House of Mystery is not really a house. It’s more like a shack. But it is mysterious,  if you want it to be.

House of Mystery Oregon Vortex, standing at an angle.

In the House of Mystery, standing straight up makes it look like you're standing at 45-degrees.

Oscillating Slowly

Outside, more weirdness ensues when the tour guide gets four people to stand in a row. They are all more or less the same height, but when she rearranges them, suddenly one is clearly taller than the others. This anomaly is so much a part of the vortex that it gets repeated two or three times, never without expressions of astonishment.

Finally, visitors are invited to stand on a stone disk imbedded in the ground. A moment later a feeling of swaying is reported. I tried this myself and darned if I didn’t feel myself oscillating slowly in a circle as if balancing on a disk on top of a ball.  Of course, I actually was balancing on a disk on top of a ball, that ball being the planet earth, but I had never felt it before.

House of Mystery, Oregon Vortex.

Excuse me, but, uh... this broom is standing up by itself. (Click any picture to enlarge).

Litster explained this as a disturbance of the earth’s magnetic fields caused by the vortex, an explanation that suited me fine, but other folks are offended by what they see as a load of Barnum-like chicanery. They don’t like being bamboozled and demand to see the man behind the curtain.

Where Animals Have More Sense than Humans

The scientific explanation for all of this, as offered by Oregonians for Science and Reason, is a combination of boiler plate optical illusions and the power of suggestion. In other words, we are only fooling ourselves.

Okay, maybe so, but I for one sort of like the idea of a vortex.  My favorite part of the Litster version is that Native-Americans considered the area “forbidden ground”; their horses refused to enter it. Pack mules owned by gold seeking panhandlers displayed a similar distaste, and even today the area is said to be devoid of wildlife, dumb animals apparently having better sense when it comes to vortices than knuckle-headed tourists.

Ball rolling uphill at the Oregon Vortex

Believe it or not, this ball was actually rolling uphill.

So what is the proper protocol when approaching a vortex? No one knows for sure, and that’s what I like about it, the idea that there’s a mystery here that science has yet to crack.

For my part, I would like nothing more than to see the laws of physics turned upside down so we could start all over again and maybe figure out how to develop that transporter beam I saw on Star Trek. But hey, that’s just me.

Heedless, Lazy, Distorted Thinking, the Most Popular Kind

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman asserts that human beings employ two modes of thinking: the fast, intuitive, emotional kind, which makes us spend money on lottery tickets and vote for Rick Santorum, and the slow, methodical, intellectual kind that makes us figure out our taxes and debunk conspiracy theories. The problem, according to Kahneman, is that slow thinking is hard work and fast thinking is easy. So which kind do you think most humans prefer?

Ponzo illusion to explain height differences

According to the Italian researcher Ponzo, the human mind judges an object's size by its background. Converging background lines distort our perception. But do we really want to know this?

To complicate matters, according to Kahneman, we are cognitively lazy. It’s not that we don’t recognize that there’s a problem. It’s that we don’t solve the right problem, we solve the easy one. The solution to staggering government debt is to cut spending. Easy enough. But if 54% of revenues are spent on the military and we refuse to cut military spending – plus, we refuse to raise revenues – the problem gets a tad bit more complicated.

When it comes to the vortex, it takes some mental effort to  figure out what’s really going on. The height change phenomenon is due to an effect called the Ponzo Illusion. Converging background lines distort our perception. In the context of the Oregon Vortex it’s hard to figure out how this applies. The problem I should be solving is, “How does the Ponzo Illusion work in the Oregon Vortex?” But the problem I prefer to solve is, “How did that person suddenly become taller?”

Then there’s the science of availability. I live in the city, my friend lives in the suburbs. I have never been mugged, although I am aware that the likelihood of being mugged is greater in the city than the suburbs. When I see an article in the paper about yet another mugging in the city, I tend to shrug it off. My friend doesn’t expect to be mugged in the suburbs and never has been, but when he sees an article in the paper about a mugging in the suburbs he freaks out. His assessment of the threat of mugging is too high, mine is too low. Our thinking is distorted by the information available to us.

A view of gravity from outside a tilted shack.

From outside the shack, water (or a ball) is clearly running slightly downhill, nothing unusual about that.

When I’m in the crazy, tipped over shack at the Oregon Vortex, the information that’s available to me is only what’s available to me within that space. The fact that we are tilted at a severe angle is compensated for in my mind and corrected in my perception in accordance with what’s level in that space. So my perception of angles is distorted and balls appear to be rolling uphill.

Fair and Balanced?

Ever notice how people who watch a lot of TV express concern about a wide range of unlikely catastrophes from child abductions to Asian bird flu. Yet they seem remarkably unconcerned about the fact that the office of the President just claimed the right to kill American citizens whenever and wherever it wants, without resort to trial or rule of law. Perhaps it’s because self-serving TV news shows tends to report one kind of story and downplay the other? Availability, you see.

Illusion of water running uphill

But from inside the shack, I perceive the overall interior space as level, so water (or a ball) appears to be running uphill.

And while we’re on the subject of distorted views of the President, I voted for Obama. I lean left. But an objective, unbiased view of his record on civil liberties ought to leave me aghast. If Bush-Cheney had implemented the same open-the-flood-gates approach to spying, surveillance and information gathering, I would be howling. But with Obama, I’m only mildly dismayed. Why?

I know why. It’s because my slow, methodical, intellectual thinking has run flat up against my fast, intuitive, emotional thinking, and – damn it! – my emotional thinking is winning, even though I know it makes no sense.

This is actually irresponsible and dangerous. Even some FOX News watchers recognize this. It can’t be about my biases, and I can’t  listen to one news source exclusive of all the others  just because it plays to my fast, intuitive emotional thinking. Just because it’s easy, and because they keep telling me  it’s “fair and balanced”. Nonsense. I have to think for myself.

Barack Obama and Superman

Is it possible that my view of Barack Obama is distorted?

Change? What change? Come on, really, what did Obama change?

By contrast, my willingness to believe in the Oregon Vortex is practically harmless.

Or is it?

Free and Easy Laughter

My friend Jimmy loves science and despises all forms of fantastical thinking, including religion. He believes that our willingness to believe in hokum is what’s causing all the problems in the world.

I can see his point. Maybe if we were all made to hold to a strictly empirical standard there would be a lot fewer people standing in the way of a loved one’s crucial medical care or blowing themselves up in the name of Allah.

Figuring out the truth can be difficult and confusing.

Figuring out the truth can be difficult and confusing. Do I really want to do it?

But then we would live in a world where balls cannot roll uphill and people cannot grow taller by moving over a few paces.  I’m not sure I want to live in that world. I like the vortex. It’s the sort of place I would gladly take my daughter when she was younger and let her make of it what she would.

These days my daughter is an artist and yoga instructor with a soft spot for eastern mysticism. When I think of her at the Oregon Vortex, I can almost hear the sound of her free and easy laughter. She would be amused by the place, not at all threatened by it.

She may not be an engineer, but she can sure appreciate an invisible force field when she runs into one.

Which has made her life just a little bit richer and given her the ability to let her imagination take flight.

As long as the vortex doesn’t draw her down into fear and anger it’s a good thing, even if it is a little self-delusional.

Yes, the Oregon Vortex is probably a lot of cheesy hokum, but to prove it conclusively I would have to make a concerted mental effort, and I like the illusion too much to trouble myself with that.

 

Oregon Vortex Video
See the ball rolling uphill (18 seconds in)

Oregon vortex video

 

My American Odyssey Route

Previous stop on the odyssey: Silicon Valley, CA  //
Next stop on the odyssey:  Boise, ID

Route to Oregon Vortex

Click map to enlarge

Sources:

Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  2011.

Litster, John, The Oregon Vortex. Gold Hill, OR: Oregon Vortex, LLC, 1960.

Cowan, Mark. Oregon Vortex: Paved Road All the Way. Oregonians for Science and Reason. 18 March, 2012. 27 January 1998.

 About the author:  Malcolm Logan is a freelance writer who specializes in US travel and US history, designing driving tours, seeking out interesting destinations and exploring US adventure travel.  He can be reached at malcolm.logan@rcn.com
Image Credits:  Barack Obama and Superman, Public Domain; Figuring out the truth, Ayzek; Illustrations by Marianne Grisdale;  All Other Images by Malcolm Logan