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Perception and Optical Illusions

Updated on August 23, 2017

Optical Illusions Created by Our Brains

In Optical Illusions:Sights for Sore Eyes, I pointed out that there is no universal classification system for optical illusions. I said I'd use three simple divisions described in "101 Optical Illusions" by Terry Jennings: those that work because of the way our eyes function, those that are successful because of our psychological makeup, and those that are a combination of both. That article describes some of the earliest known optical illusions and how they contributed to technologies that have changed the world we know. (Who would have guessed that without illusion, there would be no movies! HA!)

Next, I published a page about visual illusions, describing in not-so-technical terms how they work and offering many examples that were not seen on the intro article and won't be seen here.

This third article explores illusions that are based on the way our minds work. In Alex Grey's image The Cosmic Elf , seen here, viewers may see at least three faces, many more sets of eyes, a moth-like shape, or a floral image. This limited edition print and other unique illusion gifts by Alex Grey can be ordered online.) This image copyrighted by Alex Grey and used here in compliance with Mr. Grey's terms of permission and fair use.

Ready to "see" more?

Expections and Reality May Not Match Up

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of optical illusions that work simply because our brains key in to a specific element, and only upon closer inspection do we notice other elements. What we expect to see, in other words, is exactly what we do see, at least initially.

These illusions can be very simple or highly complex. Some are entertaining, while others function as tools to help scholars study psychology.

As you click on the thumbnails below, you might see some simple historic illusions. Several of them are quite famous, such as the rabbit/duck illustration or the faces and vases that key in to what the viewer expects. Soon we'll be seeing some surprisingly different examples.

Simple & Historic Illusions

Click thumbnail to view full-size
First used in the late 1800s, this Quaker Oats puzzle page challenged kids to count how many boxes of Quaker Oats they could find. When turned upside down, they expected to find the same number. So... just how many boxes do you see? (Photo is in publDo you see a face or an Eskimo? I first saw this illusion as a little girl and still have a copy that my dad brought home from work one day. I believe it's in the public domain. (If anyone knows otherwise, please drop me a line so I can give proper cBi-stable illusions force viewers to see one image or the other at a single time, but not both. Does your vision flip back and forth between a duck facing left and a rabbit facing right? This image, first published in 1899 by J. Jastrow, is in the puAww..... you and me together? How sweet! Words are often superimposed on other words to create an illusion effect. This image is in the public domain.The 1970s rock band Angel, used illusion to create their distinctive logo that can be turned upside-down and read exactly the same way. They are now represented by Collier Entertainment. This copyrighted image used under fair use guidelines.First published ca.1915 by Edgar Rubin, a Danish psychologist, the Rubin's vase is a well-known bi-stable illusion.W.E. Hill's cartoon was first published in Puck magazine in 1915. Do you see an old woman or a young one? Many famous bi-stable illusions were created around the turn of the century.Charles Allan Gilbert's "All is Vanity" may have captured his philosophy about vanity in this double-entendre image that has circulated the globe for more than a century. (Public domain.)Forced perspective can create optical illusions that allow our minds to perceive something that "fits" our idea of realism, yet isn't real. Shawn Kimball's photo used by CC License 2.0.Then again, what *is* real can create quite an image as well! Photo featured on bestplacesforholiday.com and used under fair use guidelines.
First used in the late 1800s, this Quaker Oats puzzle page challenged kids to count how many boxes of Quaker Oats they could find. When turned upside down, they expected to find the same number. So... just how many boxes do you see? (Photo is in publ
First used in the late 1800s, this Quaker Oats puzzle page challenged kids to count how many boxes of Quaker Oats they could find. When turned upside down, they expected to find the same number. So... just how many boxes do you see? (Photo is in publ
Do you see a face or an Eskimo? I first saw this illusion as a little girl and still have a copy that my dad brought home from work one day. I believe it's in the public domain. (If anyone knows otherwise, please drop me a line so I can give proper c
Do you see a face or an Eskimo? I first saw this illusion as a little girl and still have a copy that my dad brought home from work one day. I believe it's in the public domain. (If anyone knows otherwise, please drop me a line so I can give proper c
Bi-stable illusions force viewers to see one image or the other at a single time, but not both. Does your vision flip back and forth between a duck facing left and a rabbit facing right? This image, first published in 1899 by J. Jastrow, is in the pu
Bi-stable illusions force viewers to see one image or the other at a single time, but not both. Does your vision flip back and forth between a duck facing left and a rabbit facing right? This image, first published in 1899 by J. Jastrow, is in the pu
Aww..... you and me together? How sweet! Words are often superimposed on other words to create an illusion effect. This image is in the public domain.
Aww..... you and me together? How sweet! Words are often superimposed on other words to create an illusion effect. This image is in the public domain.
The 1970s rock band Angel, used illusion to create their distinctive logo that can be turned upside-down and read exactly the same way. They are now represented by Collier Entertainment. This copyrighted image used under fair use guidelines.
The 1970s rock band Angel, used illusion to create their distinctive logo that can be turned upside-down and read exactly the same way. They are now represented by Collier Entertainment. This copyrighted image used under fair use guidelines.
First published ca.1915 by Edgar Rubin, a Danish psychologist, the Rubin's vase is a well-known bi-stable illusion.
First published ca.1915 by Edgar Rubin, a Danish psychologist, the Rubin's vase is a well-known bi-stable illusion.
W.E. Hill's cartoon was first published in Puck magazine in 1915. Do you see an old woman or a young one? Many famous bi-stable illusions were created around the turn of the century.
W.E. Hill's cartoon was first published in Puck magazine in 1915. Do you see an old woman or a young one? Many famous bi-stable illusions were created around the turn of the century.
Charles Allan Gilbert's "All is Vanity" may have captured his philosophy about vanity in this double-entendre image that has circulated the globe for more than a century. (Public domain.)
Charles Allan Gilbert's "All is Vanity" may have captured his philosophy about vanity in this double-entendre image that has circulated the globe for more than a century. (Public domain.)
Forced perspective can create optical illusions that allow our minds to perceive something that "fits" our idea of realism, yet isn't real. Shawn Kimball's photo used by CC License 2.0.
Forced perspective can create optical illusions that allow our minds to perceive something that "fits" our idea of realism, yet isn't real. Shawn Kimball's photo used by CC License 2.0.
Then again, what *is* real can create quite an image as well! Photo featured on bestplacesforholiday.com and used under fair use guidelines.
Then again, what *is* real can create quite an image as well! Photo featured on bestplacesforholiday.com and used under fair use guidelines.
Public domain image of a Rorschach inkblot
Public domain image of a Rorschach inkblot

Psychology and Illusions

You've probably heard of a Rorschach ink blot test. Using cards containing images like this one, Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach devised a method for using people's perceptions of shapes to determine character traits like their motivations, attitudes toward men and women, and approaches to dealing with adversity. Although his work was published in 1921, his work went largely unnoticed and psychologists developed other methods of interpreting patient answers.

Rorschach's methods may have been based on a popular game that dates back hundreds of years, but it was the first methodical attempt to measure mental health problems by examining a patient's perception of images. Nearly a hundred years later, Rorschach ink blot tests continue to be widely used as a personality assessment device.

Today, optical illusions may be added to a psychologist's toolbox. Although we normally think of mental illness as hampering an individual's performance, when it comes to optical illusions it appears schizophrenics outperform control groups on certain tasks! Dr. Steven Dakin of the UCL School of Opthamology, showed this image to diagnosed schizophrenics and to a control group:

Dakin's Results

Possible schizophrenia test
Possible schizophrenia test

Dakin then asked each group to identify which sphere from the outer ring exactly matched the central ring in color. As reported by Scientific American in 2005, the results were startling: 12 of the 15 schizophrenic patients outperformed 100% of the control group.

Since some people can perceive illusions while others are nearly immune to them, the theory is interesting, to say the least!

Take Your Best Guess

Which outer sphere is an exact color match for the small, inner one?

See results

Read the Answer Below - (and a word from our sponsors!)

Most people select the option that's nearest the 10:00 position, but the correct answer is the sphere at the very bottom, in the 6:00 position.

Are you fascinated yet? Here are some optical illusion products to enliven your world every day.

Camouflage Art, Mosaics, & Marketing

The Sentinel by Bev Doolittle
The Sentinel by Bev Doolittle

We've seen how our perceptions of what is realistic combine with our peculiar psychology to challenge us to grasp multiple images in one. Camouflage artwork and mosaics have long used this principle to capture attention and hold it, which happens to be the same goal product marketers have for consumers. In recent years, companies have joined the fray to create compelling ad copy that encourages viewers to keep looking, studying, and memorizing details of their ads. Other camouflage art has been designed to create an illusion of invisibility, like military forces uses to disguise their troops and vehicles.

Bev Doolittle's artwork first captured my attention in 1996, when I purchased a print of The Sentinel as a gift for someone. In this piece, the warrior seems to be looking to the skies for guidance, and sees it, while his spirit protector is embodied in both the rainbow and the stones revealing his wolf spirit. Doolittle has become famous for her clever use of nature in her works. After purchasing the coffee table book shown below, I became a fan and collector of her prints, though they're increasingly difficult to find and getting more expensive all the time. (If you're interested in acquiring signed prints of her work, visit her gallery by clicking on her name. Prints I once purchased for a couple hundred dollars now sell for prices many times higher than I paid. Doolittle donates a portion of each sale to environmental causes.)

While Doolittle's nature-inspired art has established her as a force majeur in the art world, Chinese artist Liu Bolin's city-based themes promise to make his name gain as much recognition as his illusions. Dutch artist Desiree Palmen explores similar themes from elsewhere in the world. Cecilia Paredes hides the human body, too, but instead of incorporating city scenes like Palmen and Bolin, she turns bodies into 3D wallpaper for her images.

Other artists have dabbled with camouflage techniques while garnering fame for their non-camouflaged artwork. Abbott Thayer is known as the painter of angels, but illustrated that nature provides even the most brightly colored creatures an opportunity to blend in.

Let's briefly take a look at some of their works.

Camouflage - Nature's Gifts

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Abbott Thayer's "Peacock in the Woods" capitalizes on the way our natural world can create an illusion of a creature's absence.This Cecilia Paredes was posted by travski at www.bloodyloud.com, along with other examples of her work. You can find this talented Peruvian artist on Facebook, where she posts notices of her upcoming shows and other examples of her work.This photo, "Loggia di Fra Giocondo" by Liu Bolin (2008) is part of his "Hiding in the City" series. Photo and interview with Mr. Bolin can be found at boxartgallery.com.Desiree Palmen's work is featured in many books and websites. This image was found at designboom.com. Palmen's story can be found at http://www.desireepalmen.nl/portreten.phpOne of my favorite (and still missing from my collection!) artworks of Bev Doolittle. Do you see the arrow that forced the fox to lunge back? This work is available from her authorized gallery, www.artifactsgallery.com. (Click on her name above to seSalvadore Dali's 1952 work, Galatea of the Spheres, is just one of the many hundreds of works that earned Dali a reputation as a fine artist. This image available in a print format from AllPosters.com.M.C. Escher is perhaps the most famous illusionist artist ever. This work, Bond of Union, can be purchased from the official M.C. Escher website at mcescher.com.EHarmony's billboard used thousands of actual photos to create their "LOVE" billboard for Time Square. This photo is featured at www.picturemosaics.com/eharmony to illustrate the way they can turn your personal photographs into captivating photomosai
Abbott Thayer's "Peacock in the Woods" capitalizes on the way our natural world can create an illusion of a creature's absence.
Abbott Thayer's "Peacock in the Woods" capitalizes on the way our natural world can create an illusion of a creature's absence.
This Cecilia Paredes was posted by travski at www.bloodyloud.com, along with other examples of her work. You can find this talented Peruvian artist on Facebook, where she posts notices of her upcoming shows and other examples of her work.
This Cecilia Paredes was posted by travski at www.bloodyloud.com, along with other examples of her work. You can find this talented Peruvian artist on Facebook, where she posts notices of her upcoming shows and other examples of her work.
This photo, "Loggia di Fra Giocondo" by Liu Bolin (2008) is part of his "Hiding in the City" series. Photo and interview with Mr. Bolin can be found at boxartgallery.com.
This photo, "Loggia di Fra Giocondo" by Liu Bolin (2008) is part of his "Hiding in the City" series. Photo and interview with Mr. Bolin can be found at boxartgallery.com.
Desiree Palmen's work is featured in many books and websites. This image was found at designboom.com. Palmen's story can be found at http://www.desireepalmen.nl/portreten.php
Desiree Palmen's work is featured in many books and websites. This image was found at designboom.com. Palmen's story can be found at http://www.desireepalmen.nl/portreten.php
One of my favorite (and still missing from my collection!) artworks of Bev Doolittle. Do you see the arrow that forced the fox to lunge back? This work is available from her authorized gallery, www.artifactsgallery.com. (Click on her name above to se
One of my favorite (and still missing from my collection!) artworks of Bev Doolittle. Do you see the arrow that forced the fox to lunge back? This work is available from her authorized gallery, www.artifactsgallery.com. (Click on her name above to se
Salvadore Dali's 1952 work, Galatea of the Spheres, is just one of the many hundreds of works that earned Dali a reputation as a fine artist. This image available in a print format from AllPosters.com.
Salvadore Dali's 1952 work, Galatea of the Spheres, is just one of the many hundreds of works that earned Dali a reputation as a fine artist. This image available in a print format from AllPosters.com.
M.C. Escher is perhaps the most famous illusionist artist ever. This work, Bond of Union, can be purchased from the official M.C. Escher website at mcescher.com.
M.C. Escher is perhaps the most famous illusionist artist ever. This work, Bond of Union, can be purchased from the official M.C. Escher website at mcescher.com.
EHarmony's billboard used thousands of actual photos to create their "LOVE" billboard for Time Square. This photo is featured at www.picturemosaics.com/eharmony to illustrate the way they can turn your personal photographs into captivating photomosai
EHarmony's billboard used thousands of actual photos to create their "LOVE" billboard for Time Square. This photo is featured at www.picturemosaics.com/eharmony to illustrate the way they can turn your personal photographs into captivating photomosai

Not Just a Messy Desk

Jean de Tintville
Jean de Tintville

Artist Istvan Orosz has recently captured my attention for his illusions works. This one might appear to be a mad scientist's work area, but from an oblique angle, it's a whimsical portrait of Jean de Dinteville. If you can't turn your monitor to see the image from a side view, don't worry - it's in the photo gallery below, along with a straightforward image of de Dintville for comparison.

Istvan also creates animations and commercial work. For detailed information about Orosz, his exhibitions, or to purchase his work, visit Gallery Diabolus.

Istvan Orosz Photo Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Jean de Dinteville's entire body can be easily seen from the side!This type of illusion is called anamorphic, which means it has been distorted along both an X axis and Y axis. In order to see it without distortion, a reflective object must have a surface that re-distorts the image in order to see what is being repThe ambassador as he was portrayed in Hans Holbein's painting, The Ambassadors.Edgar Allen Poe appears to be working on The Raven (not very happily!)But it's an illusion. We can see him in a calmer moment simply by introducing a cylindrical mirror.
Jean de Dinteville's entire body can be easily seen from the side!
Jean de Dinteville's entire body can be easily seen from the side!
This type of illusion is called anamorphic, which means it has been distorted along both an X axis and Y axis. In order to see it without distortion, a reflective object must have a surface that re-distorts the image in order to see what is being rep
This type of illusion is called anamorphic, which means it has been distorted along both an X axis and Y axis. In order to see it without distortion, a reflective object must have a surface that re-distorts the image in order to see what is being rep
The ambassador as he was portrayed in Hans Holbein's painting, The Ambassadors.
The ambassador as he was portrayed in Hans Holbein's painting, The Ambassadors.
Edgar Allen Poe appears to be working on The Raven (not very happily!)
Edgar Allen Poe appears to be working on The Raven (not very happily!)
But it's an illusion. We can see him in a calmer moment simply by introducing a cylindrical mirror.
But it's an illusion. We can see him in a calmer moment simply by introducing a cylindrical mirror.

Tell us about a time you were surprised or delighted by an unexpected image! Did it make you laugh, smile, or shake your head in disbelief?

Vermont State Police were victims of an inmate's prank.
Vermont State Police were victims of an inmate's prank.

Pranks, Gags, and Humor

Camouflage techniques have been used in funny and not-so-funny gags. My first exposure to a prank of this type happened when a fellow student at Camelback High School included rock band logos and hidden images in sketches he drew for the 1983 yearbook. Although some parents were unhappy about his relatively harmless prank, Vermont residents may have more reason to feel anger over a similar prank that went undiscovered for at least four years.

As in many states, inmates perform certain duties on the state's behalf: road cleanup, license plate manufacture, and so on. In Vermont, inmates take part in ordering printed materials to be used by the state. Just this month (April, 2012), the Burlington Free Press reported that several years ago, an unidentified inmate tasked with ordering new decals for police cruisers altered the spots on the state seal's cow to include a pig - an unkind, slang reference to police officers. State officials say taxpayers are footing the bill to replace the decals at a cost of about $700. Read the story and see more about the logo by clicking on the photo above.

Sometimes artists claim credit for their gags, but others deny responsibility, fearing job loss or public ridicule. The Walt Disney Corporation, despite its enduring appeal for children's movies, has come under fire many times for pranks that range from innocent fun to highly questionable. For a complete list of Disney pranks, some of which have been verified and some which haven't, visit Snopes.com and judge for yourself. Some that are reported as untrue still seem quite clear to me. The site also reports on scenes in The Rescuers and Who Framed Roger Rabbit that may be too risky for publication on this page, as well as the original video cover of The Little Mermaid, which was removed from publication and reissued with a revised cover image.

Still more turn their creative visions into cartoons or products designed to highlight their illusion. Let's look at a couple of these lesser-known examples:

Photo Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Do you see a word camouflaged in the stars? According to Snopes.com, a 4-year old may have been the first to discover this hidden image in Disney's Lion King movie - for all four shots featured in the moving scene, visit the source material http://wwWhether it was accidental or intentional, the same hidden word appears in Seychelles currency. Do you see it? Tilt your head to the right as you look at the palm tree leaves.Attempts at camouflage art can be humorous. This poster by Yack is available in the U.K. from EasyArt.com. (Visit http://www.easyart.com/art-prints/Yack/Camouflage-53755.html to order a copy.)
Do you see a word camouflaged in the stars? According to Snopes.com, a 4-year old may have been the first to discover this hidden image in Disney's Lion King movie - for all four shots featured in the moving scene, visit the source material http://ww
Do you see a word camouflaged in the stars? According to Snopes.com, a 4-year old may have been the first to discover this hidden image in Disney's Lion King movie - for all four shots featured in the moving scene, visit the source material http://ww
Whether it was accidental or intentional, the same hidden word appears in Seychelles currency. Do you see it? Tilt your head to the right as you look at the palm tree leaves.
Whether it was accidental or intentional, the same hidden word appears in Seychelles currency. Do you see it? Tilt your head to the right as you look at the palm tree leaves.
Attempts at camouflage art can be humorous. This poster by Yack is available in the U.K. from EasyArt.com. (Visit http://www.easyart.com/art-prints/Yack/Camouflage-53755.html to order a copy.)
Attempts at camouflage art can be humorous. This poster by Yack is available in the U.K. from EasyArt.com. (Visit http://www.easyart.com/art-prints/Yack/Camouflage-53755.html to order a copy.)
Vanishing Act
Vanishing Act

Beautiful real-life images of nature at its very best - camouflaged!

 
Masters of Deception: Escher, Dalí & the Artists of Optical Illusion
Masters of Deception: Escher, Dalí & the Artists of Optical Illusion

The greatest of the greats, the artists who made the world take a second glance, come together in this book.

 
Have you ever noticed the FedEx logo's arrow before?
Have you ever noticed the FedEx logo's arrow before?

Illusion in Marketing

Illusion and subconscious messages in marketing have been used since the 1920s. Some examples are almost unnoticeable, like the unobtrusive arrow in this FedEx logo, while some call a viewer's attention to the trickier elements.

Enjoy these examples of extra-influential marketing, and stay alert to discover more examples in your daily encounters with advertisements. All of these ads are copyrighted materials used under fair use guidelines. (Scroll through the thumbnails below to see full sized photos.)

Hidden Elements & Illusion in Advertising

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Pittsburgh Zoo's logo at the bottom right uses Rubin's vase-style construction to profile two exotic animals beneath the tree.LG Electronics claims its smart phone can find 16 faces in this image. Can you? Found on LG's official U.K. blog (www.lgblog.co.uk).This Heineken ad doesn't look too controversial - unless you turn it upside down. On the full page, consumers are unlikely to be aware that their subconscious may interpret a secondary image.Mondo Pasta's illusions ads are remarkable, aren't they? Discovered at http://pabloschencke.blogspot.com.The World Wildlife Federation uses many illusions in their print ads to promote a healthier environment. For more information or to support the WWF, visit http://www.wwf.org
The Pittsburgh Zoo's logo at the bottom right uses Rubin's vase-style construction to profile two exotic animals beneath the tree.
The Pittsburgh Zoo's logo at the bottom right uses Rubin's vase-style construction to profile two exotic animals beneath the tree.
LG Electronics claims its smart phone can find 16 faces in this image. Can you? Found on LG's official U.K. blog (www.lgblog.co.uk).
LG Electronics claims its smart phone can find 16 faces in this image. Can you? Found on LG's official U.K. blog (www.lgblog.co.uk).
This Heineken ad doesn't look too controversial - unless you turn it upside down. On the full page, consumers are unlikely to be aware that their subconscious may interpret a secondary image.
This Heineken ad doesn't look too controversial - unless you turn it upside down. On the full page, consumers are unlikely to be aware that their subconscious may interpret a secondary image.
Mondo Pasta's illusions ads are remarkable, aren't they? Discovered at http://pabloschencke.blogspot.com.
Mondo Pasta's illusions ads are remarkable, aren't they? Discovered at http://pabloschencke.blogspot.com.
The World Wildlife Federation uses many illusions in their print ads to promote a healthier environment. For more information or to support the WWF, visit http://www.wwf.org
The World Wildlife Federation uses many illusions in their print ads to promote a healthier environment. For more information or to support the WWF, visit http://www.wwf.org

Conclusion

Human psychology is affected by illusions, as we've seen in the marketing examples. Conversely, illusions may affect our understanding of psychology. As digital imagery and more elaborate manufacturing technologies come into play, the division between reality and apparent reality will become blurred further.

Has This Kind of Art Captured Your Attention?

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    • KathyBatesel profile image
      Author

      KathyBatesel 5 years ago

      Thank you Sukkran and GeekGirl1!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 5 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      for me it is an interesting subject. well explained.

    • GeekGirl1 profile image

      GeekGirl1 5 years ago

      Yes, this kind of art teases our mind and forces us to think.