Optical illusions can be fascinating. They reveal curious details about how our eyes and minds work, how we perceive colour and light, and, well, they're just fun to look at too. And it seems people have been intrigued by them for centuries because we've even seen optical illusions going all the way back to the 12th century and further, long before people were sharing spinning shapes and boxes on TikTok and Instagram.
If you love to be baffled and amazed by optical illusions, then you've come to the right place. Almost every week, we uncover a new optical illusion that boggles the mind, and on this page, we've rounded up a pick of favourites. We've included a range of different types of optical illusions, both new and old, for you to enjoy. And if you're left wanting more, make sure you see our 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 so you have the tools you need to make digital designs.
01. The spinning vortex optical illusion
One type of optical illusion that we can't get enough of are those that appear to be moving but they're actually still images. These are examples of what are known as physiological optical illusions – they're caused by the over stimulation of the brain’s senses as a result fo the eye seeing too much colour, light, movement or dimensions to be able to process.
With its purple and yellow vortex-like design, this one's hypnotic, but we promise it's not a gif or a video. It's a completely still image. What happens is that the combination of the different patterns, light and levels tricks your mind into thinking it's moving when you let your eyes wander over the design. Concentrate on the very centre of the image and you should be able to see it stop.
02. The rotating horse optical illusion
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.
03. How many horses are there?
Another equine-themed illusion, this one 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 as correct. This is an optical illusion of a different kind. It's what's known as a literal optical illusion since it was created intentionally by the artist to hide or disguise things in plain view, without relying on our minds to trick us. We love them all the same.
04. The hidden tiger optical illusion
This is another clever optical illusion from an artist. Can you spot the hidden tiger in the picture? No, not the first tiger you see, the one that's showing us its teeth. The hidden tiger. We promise it's there lurking there in the image, and you'll kick yourself when you see it. This one is also a literal optical illusion, but one with an amusing cognitive element that made us smile.
05. The cat on the stairs optical illusion
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. See our pick of the best animal optical illusions for more animal-oriented treats.
06. The Phantom Queen optical illusion
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.
07. Moving pictures
This mystical moving optical illusion was created by artist Akiyoshi Kitaoka (opens in new tab). 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.
08. 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 (opens in new tab) 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?
09. Spinning discs optical illusion
This is an illusion, featured in Clive Gifford's book Eye Benders (opens in new tab), and inspired by experimental psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka (opens in new tab). No, like the first optical illusion we saw in our list, this is not a GIF but a still image – though the wheels appear to turn in front of your eyes. This happens because of how your eyes process an image, scanning it repeatedly while autofocusing and adjusting. Like in the previous example, there's a way to make it stop – try focusing on one single wheel.
10. How many numbers optical 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?
11. True Cyan optical illusion
@kbacon (opens in new tab)
You’ve probably never seen this color before... #womeninstem #voiceacting #science♬ Blade Runner 2049 - Synthwave Goose (opens in new tab)
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.
13. Floating ship optical illusion
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. This is one of what is a whole sub-genre of optical illusions – accidental optical illusions.
12. The union flag optical illusion
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. Still celebrating Jubilee Day? Make sure you also see the Queen Elizabeth II optical illusion!
14. 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 (opens in new tab), you can find out more about this illusion here.
15. The 2-in-1 spinning optical illusion
This hypnotic optical illusion actually has two mind-bogglers in one. Depending on where you look at the design, the dots will either appear to 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. This one, created by Lenstore, made it to our pick of the best optical illusions we've seen this year.
16. What colour is the circle?
Created by the same people behind the optical illusion above, this optical illusion employs a similar concept, but is no less fun to look at despite its simplicity. The circle appears to change colour as it moves from left to right on a gradient background. But it doesn't. The circle actually stays the same colour, all that's changed is the colour of the background that you're seeing it against. This is because the brain perceives colour differently depending on what is surrounding an object. We love an optical illusion with a scientific explanation and that gives us something to bear in mind when using colour in design.
17. The world's oldest optical illusion?
People have marvelled at the joy of optical illusions for a long time, but just how long? This piece of sculpture at Airavatesvara Temple in Tamil Nadu, India, is a contender for the oldest optical illusion around. Among the stunning 12th-century Dravidian architecture and carved ornamentations of chariots and avatars, there appear to be two conjoined creatures with a single head. Focus on the creature on the right, and you should see an elephant, while if you cover the body and legs of the elephant, the animal on the left is clearly a bull.
18. 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 (opens in new tab) (as spotted by 7News (opens in new tab)), 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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