These 20 Mindbending Optical Illusions Will Make You Feel Like You’re Hallucinating 

Optical Illusion
Image: via BuzzFeed

It’s baffling to think that your eyes and brain can play tricks on you, but that’s the very basis of the incredible, disorientating art of optical illusions. For at least a century – if not many millennia – artists have drawn dazzling pictures that deceive the beautifully complex human mind into believing that the various shapes within them are somehow shifting. But make no mistake: each image in this collection of 20 mind-bending pictures is stationary, even though not a single one of them will appear that way.

There are two ways in which optical illusions can work their mysterious magic: by taking advantage of the restrictions of human eyes, or by manipulating the processes of the brain to force the viewer to see strange things. In this first image, for instance, the pattern seems to vibrate against itself, simultaneously drawing in and pushing out at the observer.

Gianni Sarcone - Skull illusion
Image: Gianni Sarcone via

Gianni Sarcone is the man behind this throbbing optical illusion. Just stare at the skull in the center to see the rest of the image throbbing. Moreover, careful closer inspection reveals the secret behind the effect: the pulsing sections are made up of horizontal lines, while the “stationary” sections feature vertical lines.


Image: via Discovery News

This image seems to vibrate and shift before the viewer’s eyes. Indeed, it sometimes feels like the outer circles and zig-zagging lines are pulsating out, as if someone is pounding bass through large speakers. It’s amazing that a still image can be so unstable.


Image: via Science Kids

Optical illusions may seem like mere fun and games, but researchers have actually developed a number of theories to explain the phenomenon – more on which soon. This next image fools the audience into believing that the midpoint of the picture is far away at the heart of a rotating whirlpool, but the spiral is in fact motionless.

Sarcone optical illusion
Image: via Illusion magazine

It just took 100 milliseconds for this next image to be interpreted by the brain. Sarcone created this picture, too, and he did so in order to help demonstrate the complexities of how the mind can affect what people see. The precise colors and symmetrical geometry of the piece – titled Hypnotic Vibes – combine to make the sun shape pulsate.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Theoretical neurobiologist Mark Changizi has put forward his belief that during that 100 milliseconds the brain will predict the image that the eyes are going to see, and it can be wrong. Others have suggested that the effect is created by the eye blinking and moving quickly. In Rotating snakes by Akiyoshi Kitaoka, it appears as if all the snakes are simultaneously turning at the same speed.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

So is the brain playing tricks on the eyes, or is it the other way round? Well, neither organ is being deliberately nefarious; optical illusions are instead thought to be simply the result of the brain somewhat misunderstanding the visual images that it is evaluating. This leads to mind-bending sights like Kitaoka’s Snake conveyors, in which the rows of circles seem to be moving along a conveyor belt.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka optical illusion
Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

The “motion” in these images created by the proponents of so-called “op art” is, therefore, the result of meticulous design. The shapes, colors and negative space are all perfectly placed so as to achieve the greatest optical impact, as seen in Kitaoka’s A cicada-crab goblin here.

Image: Bridget Riley

Perhaps one of the leading op artists is British illustrator Bridget Riley. During her career she has produced eye-catching but visually disorienting paintings such as the one above from 1963, entitled Fall. Here, the waves seem to almost be rolling off the canvas altogether.

Blaze 1964 by Bridget Riley born 1931
Image: Bridget Riley

The year after Fall, Riley created the seemingly never-ending circular pattern of Blaze as a screenprint. The image actually features independent circles, but the divergent direction of the lines within each ring produces the impression that they are all part of an interconnecting spiral.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Op artists such as Riley, though, are not the only individuals to explore the strange potential of optical illusions. Psychology professor Akiyoshi Kitaoka, for example, has produced many such apparently moving patterns while he researches the phenomenon of visual perception.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Indeed, Kitaoka – who works at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan – has come up with a truly incredible variety of shapes in different colors and sizes, virtually all of which could be seen to be moving. Called Primrose’s field, this Kitaoka creation displays a checkerboard-style pattern that appears to the eye as though waves are rippling through it.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Meanwhile, this image, titled Rollers, shows rows of blue dots that appear to be revolving. Kitaoka noted that when viewers blink rapidly while studying the image, the “rollers” appear to switch the direction in which they are rotating each time the audience open their eyes.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Kitaoka has also experimented with illusions that seem to expand and contract. The flowers in this image, for instance, appear to be continually stretching, the blooms in the foreground apparently encroaching on the space occupied by those in the background.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Another of the professor’s striking illusions depicts colorful fish that seem to be swimming in opposite directions; the top three are making their way left, the bottom three heading to the right.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Kitaoka has named this next illusion Octopi, which is probably down to the fact that there are eight rows of bright yellow and purple tentacle-like shapes. Slightly unnervingly, these rows join together to create the appearance of movement to the left and right.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Furthermore, Kitaoka shows that an effective illusion doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Swimming rings, for example, uses just four yellow circles on a purple background to manipulate the brain into believing that the left-hand rings are floating toward each other. Those on the right, on the other hand, can be seen to be drifting away from one another.

Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

The potentially disorienting effect of this illusion, meanwhile, may prove problematic for some viewers. Kitaoka warns on his website that it, and others like it, could trigger lightheadedness or even nausea.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka illusion
Image: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

The researcher goes on to explain that feelings of sickness caused by the illusions transpire because the mind cannot deal with the contradictory visual data that it is receiving. He advises that if a viewer begins to feel ill when looking at an illusion, they should not close both eyes; instead, they should cover just one eye and stop observing the image.

Image: via Gizmodo

Still, such potential reactions, however distressing they may be, perhaps testify to the power that optical illusions can have over the viewer. And the phenomenon of optical illusions as a whole shows that, no matter how much has been discovered about the inner workings of the brain, it’s still prone to operating in mysterious ways.