15 must-see optical illusions
Optical illusions have been around for centuries, with some of the earliest designs spanning back to the fifth century BC. Since they first appeared, they have gained significant popularity, and now we see new mind-bogglers taking over the internet nearly every week.
If you love having your brain fried by incredible illusions, then you’ve come to the right place, as we have rounded up a collection of the best optical illusions out there. We’ve got a range of designs, new and old, for you to enjoy. And if you finish up here and are still craving some mind-bending action, then check out the list of our favourite trompe l’oeil illusions. Or if you’d like to have a go at creating your own illusion, then make sure you have a look at our guide on how to download Photoshop.
01. The rotating horse
The rotating horse optical illusion has us all asking, which way is it turning? The geometric equine kind of looks as though it snakes around, and many users on TikTok have theorised about the direction of the horse, but we still have no idea which way it turns.
02. How many horses are there?
This equine-themed illusion has been confusing viewers since the 1970s. The design begs the question, how many horses are in the painting? And despite how many times we counted the horses, we never got the answer that the artist, Bev Doolittle, revealed was correct.
03. The cat and the stairs
This feline-themed optical illusion has divided the internet. It seems as though no one can decide whether the cat is walking up or down the stairs in this post. While the illusion has been doing the rounds online since 2015, we’re still none the wiser about the direction of the cat.
04. The Phantom Queen
This mind-boggling video features the 2021 winner of the Illusion of the Year contest. The Phantom Queen optical illusion sees the reflection of an invisible queen piece on a chessboard. The video pans round to reveal a clever 3D shape that aligns with the pattern of the chessboard. Hidden under that shape is the Queen, making it look as though she wasn’t even on the board.
05. Moving pictures
This mystical moving optical illusion was created by artist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. The design uses the ‘anomalous motion phenomenon’ to make it look as though it’s moving when in reality its a totally static image. Our brain tricks us into thinking the photo is moving because of how the image hits our retinas at a particular location.
06. What’s hiding amongst the stripes?
Next up on our list of optical illusions is this eye-crossing striped affair, shared by Dr Michelle Dickinson on Twitter. It springs into life when you shake your head vigorously from side to side (carefully!). An image will start to appear amongst the lines. Which type of furry friend do you see appearing?
07. Spinning discs
This is an illusion, featured in Clive Gifford’s book Eye Benders, and inspired by experimental psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. No, it’s not a GIF but a still image – though the wheels appear to turn in front of your eyes. It happens because of how your eyes process an image, scanning it repeatedly while autofocusing and adjusting. If it feels too much, try concentrating on a single wheel to make it all stop.
08. How many numbers are in this illusion?
This number-themed illusion had the internet utterly stumped as it asked the question, how many numbers for you see? At first glance, it looks as though there are only three numbers, but the closer and harder you stare, the more numbers start to appear. There are seven numbers in total, but what numbers are they exactly?
09. True Cyan
You’ve probably never seen this color before… #womeninstem #voiceacting #science
Causing a storm on social media, this illusion shows you a true cyan colour – something that up until now your computer screen has been unable to do. Cyan is the perfect combination of red, green and blue and your monitor usually has to settle for a close approximation of the colour. But this illusion, which requires you to focus on the inside of a red circle, will show you the real thing – when you close your eyes afterwards, that is. Viewed by over 21 million people so far, it’s sure captured people’s attention. Read more about it here.
10. Floating ship
Most optical illusions seem to be handmade or digital creations, but every now and again an example appears out in the wild – and these incredible ‘floating’ ships might just be the most mind-boggling phenomenon we’ve seen. A walker was stunned to see a boat hovering above the water in Cornwall, and a photo of his discovery quickly went viral.
11. Union Flag
Ever wondered what colour-blind people can actually see? #OnThisDay in 1985, Horizon had the answer via the London Underground map, while viewers stared at a dot to make the Union flag appear in red, white and blue on a blank screen. pic.twitter.com/b1cyJscgzTJanuary 7, 2021
Observing the world in all its colourful glory is something many of us take for granted. But how different do things look if you’re colour blind? In a video created by the BBC back in 1985, an optical illusion featuring the Union flag was created to educate people on how colour blindness works.
Viewers are asked to stare at the dot for 20 seconds, after which the screen goes white and, due to a “three receptor phenomena” the flag will appear in its original red, white and blue colours. This, as the narrator explains, is due to said phenomena forcing other colour receptors to take over when some “start to tire”. Despite the illusion first being shown over 35 years old, it’s still completely mind-boggling.
12. Rotating boxes
These boxes are clearly spinning on the spot, right? Nope! They are, in fact, totally still, with the illusion caused by the flashing background. Focusing on one of the cube’s corners stops the spin so you can prove to yourself what is actually happening. Shared by Twitter user @jagarikin, you can find out more about this illusion here.
13. The 2-in-1 spinning illusion
This hypnotic optical illusion actually has two mind-bogglers amongst it depending on where you look. Depending on where you look at the design, the dots will either all change colour or completely vanish. Simply follow the light grey spot around or stare at the cross in the centre for 30 seconds to experience the design’s multiple illusions.
14. World’s oldest optical illusion?
This could be the original duck-rabbit-style illusion, created in prehistoric times and found in a cave in France in 2010. Comprised of two overlapping images carved out of rock, which look like a mammoth and bison, depending on which way you look at it. While it may well be the first optical illusion in practice, there’s no telling if it was actually meant that way or if it was just an exercise in overlapping characteristics. But, since both art and magic are in the eye of the beholder, we think if it acts like an illusion, we’re happy to call it one.
15. Super Illusion Brothers
スーパー錯視ブラザーズ pic.twitter.com/bLkFhBOCeUNovember 20, 2020
This illusion is one of the newest optical illusions we’ve encountered, and also one of the most mesmerising. Dubbed ‘Super Illusion Brothers’, it depicts a bunch of figures walking up the steps and jumping off the top. Doesn’t it? You won’t be surprised to hear (this is an optical illusion post, after all) that, no it doesn’t. Those little green people are actually completely static. This is a ‘bright phi’ illusion, which plays with our brain’s perception of bright objects.
According to Stanford University (as spotted by 7News), this is a “basic effect” whereby “If a bright point appears at one position, and then reappears at a position shifted to the right, we tend to see a single object moving left to right.” Good to know.
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