10 Outstanding Brain Puzzles & Optical Illusions

At the Mental Floss offices, we were unable to flip through the new book Champions of Illusion: The Science Behind Mind-Boggling Images and Mystifying Brain Puzzles quickly enough. In fact, we were so excited that we couldn’t even flip our brains out.




The book is a fascinating compilation of award-winning images from the Best Illusion of the Year contest, which was initially created by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik for a neuroscience conference in 2005. McCarthy and Martinez-Conde are professors of ophthalmology, neurology, physiology, and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. The book was created by the two individuals. Some genuinely mind-bending mind tricks that challenge our sense of perception of the world around us have been devised as a result of the contest since that time. Just like the authors have written:

A simulation of the world is created by your brain, and this simulation may or may not be accurate to the real thing. It is only via your unique engagement with that simulation that you are able to experience the “reality” that you are experiencing. According to our definition, “illusions” are the phenomena that occur when your perception is significantly different from the physical reality in a way that is immediately apparent. Depending on the circumstances, you might see something that is not there, you might fail to perceive something that is there, or you might see something in a manner that does not reflect the actual properties of the thing.




In the same way that a painter manages to create the illusion of depth on a flat canvas, our brain manages to generate the sense of depth based on the information that is received from our retinas, which are fundamentally two-dimensional. The phenomenon of illusions demonstrates that concepts such as depth, color, brightness, and shape are not absolute, but rather are experiences that are subjective and relative and are actively created by the circuits in our brains.

In addition to being true for visual experiences, this is also true for any and all sensory impressions, and it even applies to the way in which we think about our feelings, thoughts, and memories. As a result of the activity of neurons in our brains, we are able to experience a variety of sensations, including the sensation of “redness,” the look of “squareness,” and feelings such as love and hate.




It is true that there is a real world out there, and you do, in fact, see the events that take place around you, even if you do so in an inaccurate or incomplete manner. You, on the other hand, have never actually lived in the real world, in the sense that your experiences never exactly match the reality that exists through the physical world. Instead, your brain is responsible for collecting multiple pieces of information from your sensory systems, some of which are highly imprecise or, to be honest, incorrect.

Never before has it been so much joy to be wrong. A selection of our top ten favorite photos from Champions of Illusion, along with explanations from the book that explains how and why these images work, are presented here.

10 Brain Puzzles & Optical Illusions

Physical restrictions like the optic nerve’s million nerve fibers limit retina-to-brain information transmission. If each fiber produced a pixel, your everyday vision should have poorer resolution than your iPhone camera photographs, yet we don’t.




1. “The Coffer Illusion,” Anthony Norcia // Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, U.S.A., 2007 Finalist

This illusion is a great example of how immobile images create false motion. Move your gaze around the figure to see the “snakes” revolve. Your eyes are the only thing moving!

2. “The Rotating Snakes Illusion,” Akiyoshi Kitaoka // Ritsumeikan University, Japan, 2005 Finalist

Let your eyes wander over this image to see a regular pattern of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines in the middle and an uneven grid of misplaced crosses to the left and right. Look at one of the image’s center intersections for 30 seconds. This grid “heals” itself, becoming flawlessly regular throughout.

3. “The Healing Grid,” Ryota Kanai // Utrecht University, The Netherlands, 2005 Finalist

This illusion was found in an old photo of two lovers provided to Archimedes’ Laboratory, an Italian perceptual puzzle consulting firm. Since he was nearsighted, group leader Gianni Sarcone thought the image attached to the wall was a single face. He comprehended what he saw after putting on his glasses. The crew added the stunning Venetian mask to the photo to finish.




4. “Mask of Love,” Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber // Archimedes Laboratory Project, Italy, 2011 Finalist

Victoria Skye, a magician, photographer, and illusionist, struggled to photograph her father as a teenager. She rotated the camera to escape the glare from the strong overhead illumination, which was spoiling the photo. She watched her father grow from teen to boy to adult as she moved her camera.

5. “Age Is All In Your Head,” Victoria Skye // U.S.A., 2014 Finalist

Move your head forward and backward while focusing in the center to see the illusion (or hold your head still and move the page). Notice the counterclockwise rotation of the radial lines as you approach the image. The lines rotate clockwise as you move away from the image. Vision experts have found that illusory motion activates the same brain locations as real motion. This may explain why illusory motion seems like genuine motion.




6. “The Rotating-Tilted-Lines Illusion,” Simone Gori and Kai Hamburger

A stationary image appears to move in this Op Art-inspired illusion. Motion-sensitive neurons in our visual system are stimulated by static repeated patterns with the proper contrasts. We see an expanding heart due to the parallel needle-shaped red and white lines. Another shape circumscribed similarly would also pulsate and swell.


7. “Pulsating Heart,” Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber // Archimedes Laboratory Project, Italy, 2014 Finalist

Uncertainty about where someone is looking makes us anxious. That makes talking to someone wearing dark shades unpleasant. So someone might use dark sunglasses to be “mysterious.” Rob Jenkins’ Ghostly Gaze Illusion exploits this unpleasant effect. Twin sisters appear to glance at each other from afar in this illusion. You approach them and see that the sisters are staring at you!

8. “Ghostly Gaze,” Rob Jenkins // University of Glasgow, UK, 2008 Second Prize

The left side of the figure looks like three tubes, right side is corrugated. This illusion happens because our brain interprets the figure’s brilliant streaks as highlights at the tubes’ peaks and troughs or inflections between grooves. The illumination direction is difficult to determine since it relies on whether the light falls on a receding or expanding surface.




9. “Elusive Arch,” Dejan Todorovic // University of Belgrade, Serbia, 2005 Finalist

Although this five-pointed star is motionless, many observers believe it rotates clockwise. The artist Joseph Hautman, known as “Kaia Nao,” modified Kitaoka’s Rotating Snakes Illusion. Hautman found that irregular patterns, unlike Kitaoka’s geometric ones, were best for illusion motion.

10. “Floating Star,” Joseph Hautman/Kaia Nao, 2012 Finalist



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