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Category Archive: Illusion

Illusion of the Week: The world

The world is but an illusion” — Buddha

Wednesday is Illusion Day. Every Wednesday, we feature a contemporary illusion, or a variation on a classic illusion.

This week’s pick is a wonderful example of anamorphic art, by French artist François Abélanet.

Anamorphic illusions only work from a particular vantage point. Check out our Scientific American Mind slide show on impossible sculptures, for 3D renditions of impossible figures and other illusions that depend on a specific viewing angle.


–Susana Martinez-Conde

Fat Tuesday: Illusory Portion Control

Think that your eyes are bigger than your stomach? Well, actually, yes… they are.

The Portion Size Illusion is a new variant of an old classic illusion called the Ebbinghaus illusion, in which a circle surrounded by smaller circles looks bigger than the same circle surrounded by bigger circles. It shows that, to your visual system, everything is relative.

In the new foodie-friendly recipe, your brain is fricasseed, and your mind is served up on a platter, when the same serving of food appears in different sizes by virtue of the relative size of the plate. Use this illusion at home to make yourself feel like you’re eating like a pig, when in reality you’re just using a smaller bucket.


—  Stephen Macknik

There goes the neighborhood

Change blindness, our failure to detect changes in a scene that should have been (but weren’t) obvious, is a common occurrence not only on the magic stage, but it in real life, too.

The San Francisco Exploratorium has now produced a spectacular demonstration (below) of cumulative change blindness. Unnoticed changes pile up on a San Francisco street scene during brief blinks, until there is nothing left of the original picture.

Also, check out Sleights of Mind for more spectacular examples of magical and everyday change blindness.

Have you experienced change blindness in real life? Post a comment here and let us know.

— Susana Martinez-Conde

Blink. Did Anything Change? By Kenneth Chang: First, play the video to see if you notice any changes. Then, play it again, but this time grab the playhead with your mouse and scrub through the video to see all of the changes.




Illusion of the Week: A LEGO Puzzle

Wednesday is Illusion Day.  We feature a  novel illusion–or a variation on a classic.

This week’s pick is another great illusion made with Legos, by German advertising agency Jung von Matt. Thanks go to my friend Mincos Outón Dosil for bringing it to my attention.

Look at the picture below and see if anything rings a bell… No? Keep looking at it, and eventually the (Lego) pieces will all fall into place.

Something that I find very interesting is that, once you figure out what the LEGO configurations stand for, it becomes impossible to ever see them again as random pilings of colorful blocks.

I recommend that you resist looking up the answer for as long as you can… it’ll be much more fun if you wait for the meaning of the image to pop out for you!

Or you can click here if you can’t take it anymore.


–Susana Martinez-Conde

Illusion of the Week: The Illusory Mile High Club

Nina Khatchadourian–Seat Assignment: Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style

Ever do it Flemish Style in an airplane restroom? Nina Katchadourian has, and she wants to show you a few photos of it…

Wednesday is Illusion Day, and we feature a contemporary illusion, or a variation on a classic illusion.

This week’s pick is the series “Seat Assignment: Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style“, by artist Nina Katchadourian. As a prominent member of the not-so-well-known Illusory Mile High Club, she never gets bored on a long flight.

While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror using my cellphone. The image evoked 15th-century Flemish portraiture. I decided to add more images made in this mode and planned to take advantage of a long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, guessing that there were likely to be long periods of time when no one was using the lavatory on the 14-hour flight. I made several forays to the bathroom from my aisle seat, and by the time we landed I had a large group of new photographs entitled Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. I was wearing a thin black scarf that I sometimes hung up on the wall behind me to create the deep black ground that is typical of these portraits. There is no special illumination in use other than the lavatory’s own lights and all the images are shot hand-held with the camera phone. At the Dunedin Public Art gallery, the photos were framed in faux-historical frames and hung on a deep red wall reminiscent of the painting galleries in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. – Nina Katchadourian

I just love to think about Katchadourian going back and forth between her seat and the lavatory, armed with paper cups, neck pillows, sleep mask, and other such assorted items. I’m hard pressed to choose, but I think the best portrait is the one with the bunches of paper towels around her neck (below).  What’s your favorite?

-Susana Martinez-Conde





Delicious Portrait

René Redzepi

Our friend and colleague Jorge OteroMillan has sent us a great link to René Redzepi’s food portrait. The Danish chef’s likeness is the work of the Golpeavisa agency, for the cover of AeroMéxico Airlines in-flight magazine Clase Premier. The portrait features some of the signature dishes offered by  Redzepi’s restaurant Noma — the best restaurant in the world, according to Restaurant Magazine.

You can see the portrait come to life in this video.


-Susana Martinez-Conde 

Illusion of the Week: Lord of the (dead) flies

Wednesday is Illusion Day. We feature a contemporary illusion, or a variation on a classic illusion.


Swedish photographer Magnus Muhr is the lord of the flies. He brings the dead insects back to life, in very human form, with a few pencil strokes and his camera. Despite its apparent simplicity, the illusion is very effective (and more than a little disturbing).

Fantasia: A Composer’s Experience of Synesthesia

Composer and synesthete Harley Gittleman visited our institute today to discuss his perception. Synesthesia is when you experience more than one sensory perception in response to stimulation of  a single sensory modality. Often, people see numbers as having colors (even when they are uncolored physically, they see specific replicable colors matched to numbers. Estimates are as much as 5% of the population have some degree of synesthesia.

Harley perceives specific colors and shapes when he hears certain tones. That’s especially interesting in his case because he is a professional composer and musician. Harley played some of his wonderful music for us = and pointed to colors as he experienced synesthesia in relationship to the tones, in real time. His daily life is awash in color, motion and shape. He listens only to talk shows when he drives and he’s been known to walk into a wall or two when he absent-mindedly attends to the floating colors and shapes in front of him instead of to the real world.

Current theories suggest that synesthesia is due to wiring between neighboring brain areas that usually are not connected together. This idea is bolstered by brain imaging studies showing increased connectivity and mutual functional activation between neighboring brain areas in synesthetes  as compared to non-synesthetes.

Synesthesia might be due to mutations in genes controlling neural plasticity and pruning of neurons. In that case, it may have an adaptive value from an evolutionary standpoint, as it brings new insight and relationships between neural experiences in a way that is interesting and fairly harmless.

Do you experience synesthesia? If so, is it useful to your everyday life?

Stephen Macknik

Illusion of the Week: Use the Force

Wednesday is Illusion Day. Every Wednesday, we feature a contemporary illusion, or a variation on a classic illusion.

We’re visiting Legoland in Carlsbad, California, so it seems fitting to feature a Lego illusion this week. After very careful consideration of the many wonderful illusions that Lego fans have built, it is clear we must go with 16-year-old Paul Vermeesch’s creation.

Vermeesch recreated M.C. Escher’s “Relativity” with Legos.

Awesome, right?

But you haven’t heard the best part yet.

He did it with a Star Wars theme.

From. the. original. trilogy.


Credit: Paul Vermeesch



Paul Versmeesch


The rest of us non-Jedi builders can start with a simpler impossible Lego triangle.


Susana Martinez-Conde

Neuroscience in Fiction: What’s Expected of Us

My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will”. — Ted Chiang, What’s Expected of Us

Ted Chiang is one of my favorite science fiction writers. He doesn’t write very often, but when he does turn in a new, perfectly crafted story, you know you’re in for a real treat.

This week’s pick is Ted Chiang’s take on the age-old problem of free will. Chiang’s story, What’s Expected of Us, appeared in Nature‘s sci-fi series Futures in 2005.

The story explores the consequences that a definite demonstration that free will is an illusion would entail for humankind.

Our book Sleights of Mind also discusses our experience of free will from a nonfiction perspective, as do Jesse Bering and Shaun Nichols‘s excellent Scientific American essays.

Do you think free will is an illusion? Does your belief in free will, or lack thereof, permeate your everyday choices?


-Susana Martinez-Conde