This hypnotic optical illusion brings a Van Gogh masterpiece to life

Van Gogh's Starry Night on a gradient background
(Image credit: Museum of Modern Art / Future)

Optical illusions delight and amaze us on an almost daily basis here at Creative Bloq, and we've seen them come in all forms over the years, from still objects that look like they're moving to solid colours that appear to change before our eyes. But this one transforms a work of art, bringing it to life.

Many of the optical illusions we see offer fascinating insights into visual perception, but they're not exactly works of art. However, today's Van Gogh optical illusion offers a whole new way to see one of the most famous paintings ever created, and it takes just 20 seconds of your time (if you have more time than that to kill, make sure you see our all-time favourite must-see optical illusions).

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The Starry Night is one of the Dutch master Van Gogh's most famous paintings. The 1889 oil-on-canvas piece depicts the view from a window of the troubled painter's room in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. You'll have to make a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City if you want to see the original for yourself, but until then, the editor and podcaster Alexander Verbeek has shared this mind-bending Van Gogh optical illusion on Twitter.

Simply stare into the centre of the moving spiral in the tweet above for 20 seconds then look down at the painting. You should see Van Gogh's impressionist swirly sky come to life and begin moving in a way that seems incredibly real. The Twittersphere is suitably stunned, with people likening the optical illusion to a hallucinatory experience. "It's like being on mushrooms, but without the annoying roommates," one person replied to Verbeek's tweet. "Who needs mind-altering substances when you can look at this?" someone else wrote.

Verbeek's tweet has racked up almost 60K retweets and 181K likes. The optical illusion works with other paintings too – although it seems to be particularly effective with pieces that already have a dreamy impressionist style with swirling lines. Below, someone's tested it with Munch's The Scream.

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So just what's going on? Well, we think the illusion is caused by a phenomenon known as motion aftereffect, which is created by the way neurons in the brain respond to motion. Movement in one direction activates cells in our visual cortex so that certain detectors become more active than others, causing them to fatigue and respond more slowly than usual. As a result, when we then look at something stationary, the activity of some detectors is relatively high compared to others, so we will perceive an opposite motion.

Basically, after looking at something that's moving in one direction for some time, a still scene or object will then appear to move in the opposite direction. It works with any still image, but can be particularly noticeable in scenes with strong patterns and contrast. People often notice the effect when looking at a waterfall and then at the rocks that surround it. It seems that will a painting as dynamic as Van Gogh's the effect is particularly strong. Hungry for more? Then take a look at our pick of the best optical illusions we've seen this year so far.

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Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.