Pretty much no one has lost any sleep wondering why optical illusions exist. Seriously. Nobody cares. Brain teasers are fun to trip out on, so what! But did you know as far back as 350 B.C. Aristotle dedicated some of his philosophical work discussing optical illusions? Specifically, he said our senses can be trusted, but they can be fooled.
So, our senses can be trusted, but optical illusions trick us into thinking we are seeing something else. It’s actually our brain that is fooled. Our eyes see something that doesn’t line up with reality, and the visual illusion confuses our brain. But why does this happen? To this day, no one knows. Let’s take a look at some of the freakiest visual illusions out there. See if your brain and your eyes can discern the reality in these real life photos that have not been altered or photoshopped in any way.
Skyscrapers in Perspective
Try to guess which building is in the foreground.
Did you decide? The light brown building seems to pop out as if it’s in front, but then, once we look at the gray building, that one seems to be closer. I’m going to go with the gray building since its edge seems to block the rest of the brown building. Playing with perspectives is such a trip!
A Desert Arch Plays with Perception
Look at Delicate Arch located in the Moab area of Utah. Which leg of the arch do you think is closest to our view?
Did you choose the smaller one? You’re right! But don’t look at it too long. If you look at it again, it might flip and flop. The largest leg is furthest away, but the smaller leg seems like it should be farther away because it is smaller. Go out to Moab desert one time and see for yourself.
It sure looks like this guy is hovering several inches over the asphalt. Although scientists insist levitation is nothing more than magic or illusion, some people claim supernatural powers or psychic energy can and has resulted in levitation.
What we have here is an illusion. What at first seems to be a shadow created by levitation, is really just a dark mark on the street, like a grease spill or a wet spot. It’s amazing how our minds and our eyes can “see” something that is not there and then just as easily see the reality.
Stairway to IKEA
What do you do with all those little Allen Keys or hex wrenches that come with every “some assembly required” purchase? Like many, I’ve wondered too.
What looks like a bright and shiny stairway is actually a collection of those wrenches neatly lined in rows. Would they all come crashing down if Barbie stepped foot on the lowest stair? Or did the creator hold it all together somehow? Some things we will never know, but I do see some adhesive strips in the bottom corner.
A Whimsical Illusion
This may be the most playful apartment building in the world. The illusion of people communally frolicking in open spaces and grassy park areas makes you happy just looking at it.
Believe it or not, this is not the only amazing mural artwork in Sherbrooke, Quebec. The town has a total of 16 murals all around Sherbrooke, complete with a self-guided mural tour. All the other artworks are equally fun. Some contain quirky scenes with hidden shapes. Kids can point out the silliness.
A Herd of Horses
In most business parks, one does not expect a herd of horses to go galloping by. These beasts, wild and free, are kicking up a splashy path, racing to wherever they are off to.
But really, these ponies are permanent installations of sculpted bronze, decorating a commercial property water fountain. The splash feature near their hoofs and legs sure gives it the look of motion.
How Many Llamas Does It Take to Ring a Bell?
The answer is two. Sort of. These noble holiday llamas peering over an exquisite display of ruins could not be much more adorable.
Unless. . . the brown and white llama was actually ringing a bell in its trusty hoof. Then, this photo would be scads more adorable. As it turns out (you may have noticed by now), the red bell is actually the head decoration of another llama in the background. Darn.
French artist François Abélanet constructed this green globe outside of Paris City Hall for a 2011 art presentation. He called it “Qui Croire?” or “Who to Believe?”
The massive project required 90 people five days to construct it. It’s actually 100 meters long, and not a sphere at all. From one angle, it looks like a perfect globe. But from the side, it is revealed to be a long stretch of 1,200 square meters of lawn patched together. If you’re curious how this 3D anamorphosis artwork works, check out “Qui Croire?” on YouTube. It’s amazing!
Trip Out on This Hallway
But don’t trip!
It’s entirely flat, actually, so tripping should not be a problem. To create the effect, the tile company laid the floor in a curved pattern. Each tile was not square-shaped, but rather cut into various shapes to create the trippy design. This artistic walkway was installed by British tiling company Casa Ceramica. The warped-looking floor serves as the entrance to their Manchester showroom.
A Waterfall Under Water?
This colonial island nation located southeast of Africa in the Indian Ocean offers a spectacular sight from above. This view is possible from the southeastern tip of the island of Mauritius.
The waterfall illusion on Mauritius is created by the runoff of sand and silt instead of water. The clarity of the water brings to light those deposits. Directly above, it almost looks like an underwater vortex. After all, it’s just natural beauty.
Look at one set of eyes and mouth or, rather, try. Easier said than done. This image makes it almost impossible to focus on just one set of facial features.
It’s an optical illusion that makes us think we have double vision. Since the face is one of the most recognizable images that our brain processes, the distortion causes confusion. A similar image has been used in a drunk driving awareness advertisement. Do you feel intoxicated looking at his face?
The Classic “Café Wall” Optical Illusion
The Café Wall optical illusion falls under the category of distorting illusions. Similar to the artwork of Peter Kogler, it tricks the eyes into believing a flat surface has different characteristics.
I know it’s hard to believe, but all these horizontal lines run parallel to each other. It is difficult to tell from the angle of this photograph, yet it’s true, the tiles are square. What causes visual and cognitive confusion is twofold. First, it is the way the tiles do not line up exactly at their corners, each corner is off just slightly. Secondly, the use of visible mortar lines completes the illusion. The original locale this pattern was identified as an optical illusion occurred at a local UK café in St. Michael’s Hill, Bristol.
What is This?
I’m going to go with an accordion selfie. An accordion selfie may be a selfie pose you’ve never heard of because I have never heard of it either.
The guy in front obviously told each guy down the line to progressively bend slightly toward the camera. The effect is nothing short of spectacular. The head of the guy in front seems to replicate, like some kind of self-replicating sci-fi creature. If they all sat straight again, his pose would return to a normal selfie.
Pop-Up Sketch Book
This is simply amazing. It’s like, you know it is 3D artwork inside of an open sketchbook, but the image won’t stop looking like a 3D person.
It’s tempting to close the book just to see what happens. Like the mindboggling work of M.C. Escher and other anamorphic artists, shading, lines, and a keen sense of perspective bring this sketch to life.
Count the Legs
If you’re going bonkers trying to count four legs on this elephant, you’re not alone. The artist drew this image specifically to confuse. It’s one of the most famous optical illusions. Known as the Impossible Elephant or the Shepard Elephant, it’s an optical paradox created by psychologist Roger Shepard. The pen and ink drawing was included in his 1990 book about optical illusions called Mind Sights. The author says the image “depicts what may at first glance appear to be something that could exist as a real object in the three-dimensional world.”
One way to see only four legs on this elephant is to start from the body and look down. Following the limbs to the feet finds that the feet are not filled in. And to make it more confusing, there may be unseen elephants standing in the background.
This photograph is a good example of a literal optical illusion. These types of illusions create an image of something that is not reality.
It plays with perspectives. It appears that a guy with a large head and small body is reaching over to hug his girlfriend. However, just the opposite is true. The person standing is actually the girl. Her body is leaning over and wrapping around the right side of the guy who is sitting in the chair. Her head is completely hidden from view, except for some long hair and a peek at her nostrils, which you can see if you look closely. Do you see her?
Whatever Floats Your Boat
This boat doesn’t even look like it’s afloat unless it is floating on air! It’s a whole new level of levitation. Or, it’s just an optical illusion.
The shadow under the boat is cast at the angle of the sun, while the water is so crystal clear that the surface level becomes invisible. But, if you look at the rope that moors the craft, you will see it disappears into the water at the proper distance from the bow of the boat. Or, check out the guy at the back of the boat with his feet dangling in the water. Suddenly it all makes sense.
How Does This Man Eat?
Does he tie it in a ponytail and fling it over his shoulder? Or is this another tricky illusion?
Yes. It’s beginning to make sense. The mane of gorgeous auburn hair belongs to a woman who is wearing a black T-shirt too. That is not his belt he’s got his thumb in. It’s hers. She’s not quite a head shorter, reaching to the base of his nose, exactly where his beard and mustache would begin.
A Veil of Marble
Does this look like the work of one of our modern visual illusionists? Quite the opposite. This is a sculpture by Italian Rococo artist Antonio Corradini. He devoted years to this marble carving during the early 1740s without commission. The final work never even sold.
Called The Vestal Virgin Tuccia, or Veiled Woman, it is now permanently housed in Rome at the Palazzo Barberini. His subject was an ancient Roman Vestal Virgin who was wrongly accused of lacking chastity.
The Confounding Ponzo Illusion
The Ponzo illusion was first discovered by Italian psychologist Mario Ponzo in the early 1900s. Sometimes called a geometrical-optical illusion, the Ponzo illusion is a sleight of mind that makes linear objects appear to be different sizes when the size is exactly the same.
In this picture, do the illuminated red bars look like they are different sizes? Due to the Ponzo effect, the bar in the distance appears to be longer due to the linear pattern of tiles. To see the bars with the proper perspective, tip your device on its side and look at the bars horizontally.
The Hidden 8 of Diamonds
If you stare at this one long enough, the numeral eight begins to reveal itself in a new way. It must have been someone very bored with a card game who figured this one out.
Look at the eight diamond shapes. Then focus on the white space between them. Suddenly, a large figure eight in the center of the card appears. It’s a clever bit of detail, isn’t it?
I Got My Eyes On You
It's kind of creepy to feel so many eyes staring at you. This makeup artist based in Vancouver, B.C. has an Instagram page full of these types of illusory looks like this.
She calls this psychedelic look, "onion girl" because she's made her face look like it has several layers. It's almost all a little too real looking, is that really makeup?!
Jupiter’s Long-Lost Cousin
Do you see the resemblance? Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and this perfect circle of wood looks exactly like it. Right?
Or maybe it looks more like a tabletop. Either way, you’re right. This is not the best optical illusion on the list.
There are 12 black dots on this grid. The crazy part is you cannot see them all at once. It’s neurologically impossible. Instead of seeing all 12, the dots seem to twinkle on and off.
Scientists invented the Scintillating Grid Illusion in 1997. They say the grid tricks your brain into seeing a pattern that doesn’t exist. The internet went bonkers when game developer Will Kerslake tweeted the Scintillating Grid in 2016. Part of the reason the illusion works is because humans do not have the best peripheral vision. When you focus in on one dot, the others seem to disappear. This happens because your brain mistakenly fills in the rest of the pattern.
This is what happens when your cloud storage gets overwhelmed with too many pet photos. A big cloud comes over your house and rains cats and dogs.
But seriously, it’s quite a cloud form. When does a puffy cloud appear to be cat-shaped and dog-shaped at once? Probably never.
A Lakeside Mirage
Although it looks like a nice strip of white sandy beach at the base of rolling green hills, don’t bother pulling over to take a dip.
Tell your brain that the green sea that spreads out before you is not real. Insist it is just an optical illusion. Look at it again and try to visualize, instead, a concrete barrier on the side of a highway, what it is. The shrubs obscure the concrete barrier, and the shadow on the side of the wall appears to be a lake, while the sunshine on the top of the wall looks like a long strip of beach.
Watch it Wiggle
Here’s a fun little distraction to make your brain freak. Assuming you’re viewing this image from your phone, shake it up a bit. When you’re done shaking the device, look at the Oreo cookie in the center of the cake and watch it dance!
The jiggling effect sort of turns the cake to Jell-O. It’s like the cookie is still shimmying and shaking even after you’ve stopped moving the phone.
What Kind of Swimming Pool is This?
Why do the people inside look totally dry? And how does that man’s hat stay on? Shouldn’t their hair be floating upward? Do I see someone using their phone?
Mystery solved! This swimming pool is actually a very special pool that contains no water. It’s an art installation at the 21st Century of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan. There is a hallway and a door to enter the pool from the bottom, while a glass plate covers the surface of the pool with a foot of water on top, giving the impression of a filled pool.
An Impossible Repair Job
A clever Reddit user captured this scene at just the right angle to drive us bonkers. It looks like these repairmen are defying the laws of physics by reaching across to this side of the bridge from the distance of the street, where their lift vehicle is parked. How could their lift stretch so far?
Well, for starters, their lift has horizontal motion, as well as vertical. So, the reality is those workers are repairing the bridge from where their vehicle is parked. As a bonus optical illusion, check out that orange safety cone that seems to levitate above the worker on the ground.
From the perfect vantage, “Manifestation Station” looks like a transparent space that fills in the background with a utopian cityscape. The gutter is a sparkling blue river, major market Safeway is transformed into a thriving farmers market, and a grass-lined bike lane replaces painted green concrete.
Artist Mona Caron was commissioned by the city transportation department to create this mural. It is located in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood at Church and Duboce streets. If you look closely, you can see the mural in the background continues beyond the utility box mural. That background mural is hers too! I wonder if any birds have tried to stop by for a splash in the river?
Nothing to See Here
This wall of colorful bags looks like a display at an open market. The fact that a man is hiding in there is practically unbelievable. Look as long as you like, and you will probably not find Liu Bolin, the artist known as “the human chameleon.” After all, it takes over 10 hours for him to be painted into the project.
So, where is he? He is front and center. He’s standing right in the middle. Start with that hot pink and turquoise bag in the center of the lowest row and look for a pair of shoes. Once you find his feet, you can trace up to his pants and to the dark outline of his head. I bet he was good at hide-and-seek as a kid!
Too. Much. Cute. And what an amazing way to express art. It’s like a silhouette profile portrait turned inside out. Light brings the shapes of three sweet pets to life. A doggo, a kitty, and a bunny are shaped by humans engaging with each other. The illusion flips back and forth between people and pets.
This must have been a very effective ad. The images were used for promoting pet adoption. One of each, please!
A Real Illusion with a Scientific Explanation
This is an actual photo of a boat that seems to be floating in the air. The image was not tweaked with photoshopping, and it was not taken from a strange angle in order to create the illusion. It even has a name. It’s called the Fata Morgana, named after the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay. Italian shipman superstitiously believed it was she who lured sailors to their deaths by tricking them with a mirage of land.
The Fata Morgana is a rare phenomenon that occurs when there is an inversion layer. Warm air is usually nearest to the earth. When it inverts and colder air is close to the sea, it causes the atmospheric illusion. It’s rare because when the inversion layers occur, wind generally mixes the air, and no effect is noticed.
Hall of Confusion
Anyone susceptible to motion sickness may want to steer clear of this hallway! The walls appear to be curving in and bending out. It looks like the walls are draped with a fabric that has a lined pattern. But none of this is true.
What you are looking at is an installment from an artist’s exhibit. Austrian psychedelic artist Peter Kogler uses his art to create mind-bending spaces out of ordinary rooms. This particular work was on display in 2016 at the ING Art Center in Brussels.
How this image is not a painting by French artist René Magritte, is beyond me. It’s divinely enchanting, mysteriously lovely, and it questions reality. That is a dock, and it is floating in the sky. The peaceful grassy bank is an ideal place to spend the day.
But truly, what a lake! It reflects the sky just like a mirror. It’s prettier than life.
A Movie Studio Building Façade?
This is the flattest building I have ever seen. It sticks into the air like a lost section of a 100-foot-high concrete wall. It looks like it’s the office building of someone from an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s one confounding image.
The truth is, the building is a 3D structure with three sides. At another angle, you would see that it is a triangular building.
She’s Wearing no Pants!
Wait a minute. Where are her legs? Did she forget to disengage her invisibility power? And why would she stay half-visible?
Supernatural phenomena don’t usually happen in the light of day. See if you can figure this one out without Googling the answer.
As you approach this crosswalk, you might find yourself slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting Charlie Brown or Snoopy. Or maybe it’s Woodstock you notice first. Of course, Marcie is included in the gang, and you wouldn’t want to hit her either. (And then there’s Lucy, but she’s kind of mean anyway.)
The crosswalk painting not only serves as adorable city street décor but also as a warning for cars to slow down for pedestrians. The 3D illusion falls apart when viewed from the sidewalk, becoming a normal 2D drawing. This particular work of art was pictured in Santa Rosa outside of an ice cream parlor.
Oil Vs. Water
Here we have what seems to be a disappearing glass rod. It’s clearly visible entering the glass, but when it goes through the oil segment, it looks invisible. At the bottom section, which is made up of water, it’s visible again.
Why does the glass rod disappear? Well, first of all, scientists say that light slows down as it enters the glass. It also slows down as it enters the oil. The other factor is the glass rod. The refractive index of the glass rod is the same as the oil. So, the available light passing through the rod and the oil cancel each other out, so to speak, erasing the boundaries and making the outline of the rod seem invisible.
Did a Tree Crash into This Brick Building?
It looks like it could be a puzzle. Perhaps green and brown bricks could fill it in?
Actually, this wall is not missing any bricks at all. Though it looks like bricks have been removed to create the tree image, that was not the creative’s method. A clever street artist used shading to design the pattern. It’s a normal brick wall beautified by ingenuity.
I know it looks like the bars on this railing have 3D proportions, as if they curve out in a rounded pattern, but it’s not so. How can this be?
This is another example of distorting illusions, as is the case with the Café Wall. It’s so tricky it’s almost impossible to see the blue metal bars in their actual shape. All the bars line up to make a regular, flat railing. Some bars are straight, and some are curved. But the curved bars line up in rows as flat as the rest. It’s a geometrical puzzle!
It’s either a hairless tarantula or a spider species I’ve yet to come across. Oh, whew. It’s just his girlfriend’s hair clip.
Did she leave it like that on purpose? And does he have arachnophobia? Looking for more optical illusions? Check out The New Book of Optical Illusions by Georg Rüschemeyer. It contains over 150 examples of optical illusions with explanations that reveal the science behind the phenomenon. Optical illusions aren’t just found in leisure magazines or optometry textbooks. The world is full of visual trickery. Color, shape, perspective, and shadow can easily confuse our brains and make us question our physical reality.
Just an Average Brick Wall?
At first glance, this picture appears to be nothing more than a snapshot of a section of a brick wall. But if you look at it long enough, you might see that a small gray area the size of ash on the tip of a cigar is strangely out of place between two bricks.
Stare at it long enough and you will see the entire cigar. It pops out at you and will not return to appearing to be a shadow between the bricks, no matter how long you gaze at it. If you’re still not seeing it, here’s the spoiler: the cigar is stuck in the bricks as if the brick wall is smoking it. No? Don’t worry. It took me two days too!