Arguably one of the biggest visual conundrums that has existed for hundreds of years is the optical illusion. According to the medical definition provided by Merriam-Webster, an optical illusion is a “visual perception of a real object in such a way as to misinterpret its actual nature.” These illusions come in many shapes and sizes, literally in some cases. Whether it be a pattern on a computer screen that simulates motion or creates a wave effect to a black and white silhouette that somehow manages to be two images at the same time, optical illusions never cease to confound the mind. When we see, our brain typically fills in certain parameters along the ridges of our vision and the illusion seeks to trick the brain into creating a field of motion or presence that is not really there.
As a kid, I remember seeing publications at the book fair that were always competing to have the most eye tricks or crazy images that could be packed into a single book, and I wondered what exactly it was in these images that blew my mind. Well look no further! Gathered below are 15 of the most stunning optical illusions with some context as to what they are, who created them, and just how they seem to be such amazing works of art.
15. “All Is Vanity” Painting
This image is in the category of drawings as optical illusions and is one of my favorite sub-genres in the entire topic. The image above is called “All is Vanity” and was drawn by Charles Alan Gilbert in 1892. Gilbert was an American artist who also had a hand in the early days of animation as well as helping design patterns for camouflage for tanks in the first World War. The drawing gained popularity for its double visual scheme that depicts two separate images at the same time. Initially, the scene appears to be a woman sitting in front of a mirror, presumably working on her makeup or her hair. Once the entire image is taken in, however, the image becomes far more sinister as the shape in the center of the image becomes a large skull. There is a play on words in the title of the illusion since the woman is literally sitting at a vanity and the act of continually seeing one’s own image is considered vain.
14. Hermann Grid
Aptly titled after its creator, Ludimar Hermann, this illusion is a series of black squares lined up perfectly on a white background. When observed with the naked eye, any section of the grid not focused on will appear to have a gray dot at the center of the white space. Once noticed, the eye can shift to where the gray dot is, but astonishingly enough, the gray spot will be gone! According to Wikipedia:
“The effect is often explained by a neural process called lateral inhibition. The intensity at a point in the visual system is not simply the result of a single receptor, but the result of a group of receptors which respond to the presentation of stimuli in what is called a receptive field.”
13. This Woman
Yes, you read that correctly. This is, in fact, a woman! Were you fooled? At first glance, you might think you were looking at an elaborately decorated parrot, but this image is actually a woman with incredibly detailed makeup designed to represent such a bird. Upon closer inspection, you can see that the way her body is angled and painted is placed at a very specific perspective, and the photographer was able to capture this image perfectly. The illusion of the image is also enhanced by the blurred green background which distorts our eye’s perception of size. In this particular case, that is an integral part of the success of the scene because the model’s size is now disregarded, and our brain fills in that empty space with our idea of how big a parrot is. With a normal background, it would’ve been easier to see a normal-sized woman on a stump.
12. Ebbinghaus Circle
This image may look like nothing more than a bunch of circles, but I can assure you that there’s so much more going on here than meets the eye. When you look at the two center circles, you might think that they’re different sizes, but you would be wrong! In fact, those two circles are the same size. Don’t believe me? Let me break it down for you. Initially, two circles of the same size are placed next to each other. Next, the circles are surrounded by two different types of circles. On the left, larger circles encase the original circle while the right circle is surrounded by smaller circles. This is where the illusion occurs. The perception of the circles in response to the ones around them distort their original size and make them appear different in size from each other even though, in reality, nothing has changed. Freaky!
11. 3D Graffiti
The image you see before you looks like a cavernous pitfall of danger sandwiched on both sides by two-story buildings, but, in fact, this image is of a city street. Thanks to the miracle of single point perspective painting and other graphical techniques that we’ll delve into, this work of modern art tricks the eye in amazing ways. Surely, you think the second you step onto the open part of the painting you’d plummet down into the icy depths below. This picture was taken in Geldern Germany in August of 2008 during the annual street painting festival and was designed and painted by Edgar Mueller who is known for incredible works of art such as this one. During an interview, Mueller said that he wanted to give this image an apocalyptic feel. Judging from the broken pillars of concrete spikes and the area below them, I think he succeeded without question.
10. Jesus Optical Illusion
Okay, this illusion requires a little bit of work on your part for it to work. Look directly at the center of the image where the vertical dots are for thirty seconds, blinking as few times as possible. After that time has passed, find a blank wall or sheet of paper, focus on it, and blink. Did you see anything strange? You should’ve! Most likely, what you saw was an inverse black and white image of the one on your screen. Crazy huh? There’s another example of this phenomenon that requires you to stare at a black and white photo and when looking at a blank space, the image is suddenly in full color. The science behind this image and optical illusion comes from the stark juxtaposition of white and black in the picture and the way our eyes perceive light. Much like the way the image our eyes actually perceive is flipped in the retina, so too are the shadows on this image.
9. Fraser Spiral
This image is probably one of the most common optical illusions known to man. The classic spiral shape and diamond pattern make for a cacophony of visual noise. By simply curving the checkerboard pattern and placing a twisted black and white spiral on top of it, the eye sees an incredible amount of information. By the time you begin to process what you’re looking at, you’re already confused again by the array of motion created in a single image. The official name for this illusion is the Fraser Spiral, created by a British psychologist by the name of Sir James Fraser in the year 1908. Back then, the illusion went by another name: the twisted cord illusion. The use of these tilted designs creates a deep sense of depth perception that also appears to twist in on itself in an infinite way. Adding more intricate backgrounds to the spiral helps increase its trippy effect.
8. Kanizsa Triangle
This illusion, too, was named after its creator, Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa. This specific trick falls into the subcategory of optical illusions known as “Illusory Contours.” Utilizing sharp, contrasting colors, typically black and white, the illusory contour places shapes in a specific pattern and angle. By doing this, the organization of shapes makes our brain fill in the space between the objects with imaginary lines that create the illusion of an outline of a separate shape. For its use in the psychological world, shapes like Kanizsa’s Triangle are used to study different levels of perception. Obviously, a more perceptive person would be able to identify the sort of shapes created by the smaller shapes. Less perceptive people may not be able to see anything at all! For me, the image looks like three small clones of Pac-Man are all facing each other. As long as you have multiple shapes with the same angles, you can create illusions of your own just like this one.
7. Penrose Stairs
Okay. I’ve never understood how these stairs work. No matter where I start, I always find myself working my way up the staircase, which is impossible, right? Almost. Turns out this incredible illusion is known as a Penrose staircase created by Lionel Penrose and his son. They took their original concept of a Penrose Triangle, which operates on a two-dimensional surface and has equally impossible proportions and converted it into a three-dimensional staircase. The staircase was first introduced to the world in the late 1950s and was popularized by the artist M.C. Esher, who would paint incredibly intricate and beautiful works of art that had such surreal designs. This optical illusion has been parodied on numerous television shows, from Spongebob Squarepants to Family Guy. My personal favorite is the Family Guy parody where M.C. Esher is replaced with MC Hammer dancing up and down the stairs.
6. The Floating Finger
This next trick was the first optical illusion I ever learned about. You can do it at home, too! What you need to do is make some finger guns like the image above and aim them towards each other in front of you. Bring them within an inch of each other and make sure that they’re in line with one another. Now that you’ve done this, look past your hands and focus on a wall in the distance (if it’s a blank wall, the illusion will work better). What did you see? Most likely, you saw a small floating, pill-shaped chunk of meat inexplicably floating in the air. The science behind this is really cool! It has to do with focusing on an object in the background while an image is very present in the foreground. As our eyes shift focus, they change their perception to match the distance of the image they’re looking at, which results in the skewed vision of your fingers.
5. Two-Face Illusion
No this isn’t an illusion about the infamous Batman villain, Harvey Dent, but the concept is sort of similar. Does the image above seem unsettling? It should. Perhaps it’s the perspective and placement of the face, but something is definitely off. For me personally, the position of the eye really freaks me out and makes me think that I’m staring at a cyclops or some other ancient mythological creature. Based on where the eye first focuses when looking, the image will appear different. Try it! Start by looking from the left side of the image, and it would appear that the man is just half of a portrait looking dead on into the camera. This is the calmer option of the two images. Now, look at the image beginning from the right side of the screen. It appears to be a man in profile but that eye will probably throw you for a loop and leave you guessing.
4. The Pinwheel
Ah yes, the classic pinwheel — a staple inclusion in the world of optical illusions. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen this particular optical illusion in the media, as it’s typically used in the process of hypnosis to lull the subject into a deep state where they can then be molded and shaped by their master to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. What makes this pinwheel so popular, though? Well, I have an explanation that will hopefully clear things up. This image is discombobulating enough on its own, but when it’s spun in a circular motion, the effect is amplified and creates an even more intense illusion that can put anyone into a dizzy spell. The spiraling image is enough to put me to sleep almost anytime I look at it for far too long and is one of my favorite optical illusions.
3. Duck Rabbit Illusion
This drawing is found in many optical illusion books and psychology texts for a number of reasons. As the name implies, the image is meant to represent a duck or a rabbit depending on the perception of the viewer. Which do you see? Me, I always see the rabbit first, and I think that has to do with the focal point of the drawing itself. When you first look at the image, what draws your attention the most? It’s the eye, right? It’s the part of the image with the starkest contrast between light and dark, and that shadowy effect draws the viewers’ eyes before allowing them to do anything else. Since I was born and raised in a traditionally English upbringing where reading occurs from left to right, my natural inclination is to then look to the right of the image, which creates the rabbit effect. I would love to hear if anyone who reads from right to left experienced a similar effect and always sees the duck first. Let me know!
2. The Perception Illusion
When creating this article, I had arguably the hardest time believing this illusion was real. Surely, I thought, these three men are all different sizes; it’s impossible for them to be the same size. I refused to believe it, but I was wrong. They are, in fact, all the same size, and our brain is playing a trick on us. You see, if you remove the lines in the background, the sizes of the men appear to be exactly the same for one reason alone: perspective. The lines behind them create the illusion of depth since they’re drawn at an angle, and our brain uses logic and perception to create an artificial depth of field on a two-dimensional plane, thus making us think the man that appears the largest is also very far away, so logically, he would be bigger than the other two. This image also plays on our perception of space in the sense that we immediately jump to the conclusion that the diagonal lines on the bottom of the image are, in fact, a floor to be stood on when they’re merely images behind the figures.
1. The Elephant Illusion
Ah, the elephant — one of nature’s most majestic and large creatures, and also one of the most confounding! This image can’t really exist, can it? Surely not. I mean, come on; it has so many legs! Or does it? Well, that’s something that’s entirely up for interpretation. It seems that the legs protruding from the elephant have no feet to stand on, and at the same time, the legs with feet don’t seem to actually connect to the elephant itself. The folks over at weirdoptics.com did the research and help explain this phenomenon very well:
“This visual optical illusion is quite simple when it comes to it. You’re seeing more legs than you should because the legs that would need to appear have been erased and moved over to the sides, which makes our head go dizzy when trying to figure out how many legs, which legs are real, and their number, and so on and so forth.”
Here’s a bonus optical illusion: