People say you have to “see it to believe it,” but sometimes our eyes aren’t telling the truth! Optical illusions prove that things are not always what they seem. Have fun playing with perspective and perception with the illusions in this issue. (Follow along with this illusions example sheet.)

Optical Illusions Science Lesson

What is an optical illusion?

In order to see, your eye must focus light on its retina, convert the light into electrical impulses, and send those impulses to your brain to be interpreted. When the electrical impulses arrive in the visual cortex of the brain, the brain “reads” them and interprets them into an image of color and light. It then flips the image (the light was projected on your retina upside down) and fills in for the blind spot if necessary.  All this happens almost instantaneously, allowing you to read a book or enjoy a beautiful sunset. Generally the process works flawlessly, but sometimes the color, light, or pattern of an object can “trick” the brain into interpreting the image incorrectly, so you think you see something differently from how it really is. This is an optical illusion.

Types of optical illusions

Some optical illusions happen naturally: have you ever noticed that the moon looks much bigger when it’s close to the horizon than when it is high in the sky? Or have you seen what looks like water on the highway when driving in the sunshine? These are both optical illusions – the moon doesn’t really change size, and the road may be dry as a bone!

Other illusions happen because of a certain combination of colors and shapes, changes in background, or because our eyes get tired. Here are just a few types of illusions. Look at our illusions example sheet to see pictures of each one.

Ambiguous Illusions

These are illusions that have two pictures in them; which one you see depends on how you look at them. You’ve probably seen the ambiguous illusion that looks like either a vase or two people facing each other. In another kind shadows and contrast can make an image look either like a cube or like an empty room. Check out the illusions sheet to see some more examples. Try drawing your own ambiguous illusion!

Anomalous Motion Sea Sickness illusion by Walter Anthony

Sometimes things look like they are moving, but they really aren’t! This is a complex illusion that depends on color, contrast, and peripheral vision. (That’s when you see out of the “corners” of your eye rather than focusing on something directly.) One famous example of anomalous motion is this rotating snakes image. It is not animated! Try printing it out on a color printer and it will still work. Focus very hard in the middle of the image and the motion will stop. The image to the right is another example of anomalous motion called “sea sickness.” Be careful – looking at anomalous motion illusions might actually make you seasick! Look at the larger version in the illusions example sheet to see it move.

Afterimages

Have you ever seen something even after you’ve stopped looking at it? This is called an afterimage. Look at the example on the illusions sheet. Stare hard at the red ball for about 20 seconds, then look at the empty flask, letting your eyes go a bit unfocused. You will see the ball inside the flask now, but it’s changed colors! How does it work? As you stare at the red ball, the red receptor cells (called cones) in your eye get tired and stop sending signals to your brain. When you look at the interior of the flask, you would normally see a white background, which is a mix of signals from red, blue, and green cones. Instead, you saw a bluish-green ball inside the flask, because the red cones were still too tired from looking at the red ball to transmit information. Try staring at the green ball now. What color is the afterimage?

Distortions

In these illusions, objects look like they change shape or size. Distortion illusions happen because our brains process objects in relation to what is around them. We expect things in the distance to look smaller than things up close, for example. Distortion illusions play with those expectations to trick us into thinking we’re seeing something different than what is there! Check out several distortion illusions on the illusions example sheet.

Impossible Objectsan impossible circle illusion: watch the outside edge become an inside edge

It may look okay on paper, but the minute you consider whether it can exist in real life, you’ll be scratching your head! Impossible objects look reasonable, but really defy laws of perspective and geometry—outside edges become inside edges, staircases lead up and down in a continuous loop, and more.

Optical Illusions Science Projects

Mirror Illusions

We peek in a mirror to see how we look, but in reality we aren’t seeing what we really look like to other people! Try these activities to experiment with mirrors.

What You Need:

Activity 1

  1. Look at yourself in the bathroom mirror. Is the image you see the same as what other people see when they look at you? What side is your hair parted on? Do you have any freckles or dimples on one side of your face?
  2. Now hold up the picture of yourself and look at it. Compare it to your reflection in the mirror. Is your hair parted on the same side in the picture? Are your freckles or dimples in the same place? Turn the picture around and look at its reflection in the mirror. What does it look like now?

Mirrors work by reflecting light that bounces off your face back into your eyes. The resulting image is reversed, or backwards. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you see everything on the opposite side from how another person sees you. The picture from a camera shows an unreversed image of your face, but if you look at a reflection of the picture in the mirror, it will be reversed again.

Activity 2

  1. Write out the alphabet in capital letters on a piece of paper and hold it up in front of a mirror. Since the image is reversed, most of the letters will be backwards – but not all! See if you can find and circle the eleven letters that look normal. These letters are vertically symmetrical, meaning that if you sliced them in half, each half would be the exact opposite (“mirror image”) of the other half. See if you can make some words out of those letters and read them in the mirror – but be careful; just because the letters appear correctly doesn’t mean they will be in the right order! Is there any way you can write a message readable in the mirror? Try to figure it out.
  2. Take the handheld mirror and set it up vertically on the piece of paper just above the alphabet. Most of the letters will look upside down in the mirror, but there are nine that will look normal. These letters are horizontally symmetrical: if you cut the letter in half from side to side, the top and bottom would are mirror images of each other. Try making words of these letters and reading them in the mirror

A mirror code would be pretty hard to write in, if you only have 9 or 11 letters to work with! Of course, you could just learn how to write your alphabet backwards and write your letters that way!

Activity 3

Stand in front of the bathroom mirror, then hold up the handheld mirror in front of you so it faces the bathroom mirror, too. How many “yous” do you see? You probably see too many of you to count. This is because the handheld mirror reflects the reflection in the bathroom mirror which reflects the reflection of the handheld mirror…and on and on!

Activity 4

Even though a bathroom mirror reverses your image, it is still a fairly accurate representation of what you look like. Not all mirrors are that way, though. If you’ve ever been in the “funhouse” at the fair, you know that sometimes mirrors can make you look very strange indeed. These mirrors are curved. If the mirror is curved out toward you, it is a convex mirror and will make you look short and and fat. If the mirror is curved out away from you, it is concave and will make you look tall and skinny. You probably don’t have carnival mirrors in your house, but try looking at your reflection in a large soup spoon. Does your reflection look different on the back of the spoon than on the front?