By Frederic Friedel
Take a look at this image. Is there any way you can imagine that the four horizontal blue bars are perfectly parallel, not slanting? Try to see them that way, with a conscious effort.
Impossible, right? It is an example of the famous café wall illusion, a geometrical image which makes parallel straight lines appear to be sloped. It was first discovered in 1898, and then and re-discovered by Professor Richard Gregory in 1973 — on a wall outside a café in St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. The wall has alternate rows of black and white tiles, which seem tilted and not perfectly horizontal. He and Priscilla Heard described the illusion of slanting lines in Perception, 1979, volume 8, pages 365–380, Brain and Perception Laboratory, University of Bristol. You can read their paper in PDF here.
The New World Encyclopedia explains how the illusion works: diagonal lines interact in the brain, where different types of neurons react to the perception of dark and light colors. Because of the placement of the dark and light tiles, different parts of the lines are dimmed or brightened in the retina. Where there is a brightness contrast across the grout line, a small scale asymmetry occurs whereby half the dark and light tiles move toward each other forming small wedges. These little wedges are then integrated into long wedges with the brain interpreting the grout line as a sloping line.
The (totally impossible) image at the top of the page, one that has currently gone viral, is by Viktoria Skye, who is a children’s and family magician and balloon twister from Atlanta, Georgia. Victoria likes to create optical illusions and impossible objects using art, science and math. Many of them are published in magic, math, science and puzzle articles, magazines and books. Here’s an earlier café wall illusion. But let us look at the current version:
In the two images above the one on the left is identical to the one at the top of the page. In the second image I have simply cut out the sections between the horizontal blue bars. It is really exactly the same image — I swear!
Perfect circles illusion
One more? Take a look at the above image. Can you imagine that the circles are quite perfect? And how about this image:
Of course they are perfect circles. I can prove it by changing the background colour of the images to black:
This is the same image as the previous one — the only difference is that the background and the defused bits round the dots is black.
The same for the first image of this series: just the background for the outer circles is now black. All of them, even the ones in the middle, are perfect circles.
And while we are at it, here’s one more:
When my son Martin saw these kinds of illusion he said: “My eyes and brain have a bug, I’m sending them in for an upgrade!” But seriously: it is not a defect in our visual system, but rather the result of very sophisticated algorithms used to process data. The system is not very good as a precise physical instrument, its purpose is to interpret the information and help us understand the nature of the objects it perceives.
Also read: Tricking the brain