Hidden circles illusion

By Phil Plait | September 16, 2009 5:08 am

Richard Wiseman has another fantastic illusion on his site:

Hidden circles illusion

I’m pretty good with these things, and it took me a while to see the circles… and even when I did, they kept popping in and out of existence. Shading is critical in this particular illusion!

This illusion’s been around awhile; I found a reference to it from 2007, and I imagine it’s a lot older than that, too. Mnd man, it’s one of the more maddening ones I’ve ever seen! The one above it on Richard’s page made me a little woozy, too. I know men tend to be somewhat more prone to red/orange color blindness than women (I have a touch of it myself, but it’s not bad), so I wonder how the genders break down in seeing that particular illusion. Go take a look and leave a comment on Richard’s blog!


Comments (71)

  1. Chris

    This is one of those strange illusions. I saw 16 circles immediately, and it’s only with great effort that I can see any of the square elements.

  2. Peter

    Err.. maybe it’s my glasses, but I see 0, zero, circles.

  3. It took me a while, but fist I see 4 of them, and inmediatly 12 more. Really interesting illusion seeing 16 circles in one picture that only have paralel lines.

  4. I agree with Chris, once you see the circles it’s hard to see anything else in the picture.

  5. Once you see the circles, it’s hard to turn them back off.

  6. Wow, nice. I totally didn’t see them at first. For those who need a spoiler, look at the areas of horizontal lines.

  7. MadScientist

    Hmm … yet another illusion to turn into a PostScript file … if I ever find the time. I have notes on 2 illusions, will add this one to the list, but I’ve only implemented the circles and spirals one.

  8. Klas

    I saw 4 at once (the row to the right) and it took me a long time to see the rest. Now I can only turn them of for a short while and it’s really unstable.

  9. eta c

    I don’t know how difficult it is to “turn off” the circles. I initially saw only the squares (they seem to be my default) and eventually got the circles. Eventually, however, I found a trigger and am able to switch back and forth between the two. I had half as circles and half as squares and for a brief time managed to see both at once. Of course I’ve now ruined my eyes for life.

  10. Interesting to note that if you turn the circles 90 degrees clockwise, the lines will match the vertical line pattern, thus blending in!

    edit: turn each circle 90 degrees individually, that is.

  11. mike

    I don’t see any circles.

    I’m starting to feel like that guy in Mall Rats…
    “You know what? There is NO Easter Bunny! Over there, that’s just a guy in a suit! “

  12. Dan I.

    I see nothing…NOTHING!!

    I don’t see any circles.

    Therefore I conclude there are no circles and that this is simply a massive government coverup!

    But could someone tell me the secret? This isn’t like one of those “Magic Eye” things is it?

  13. JefFlyingV

    Nice trick. I didn’t see the circles until I stared at the x at the center of the page and the circles showed up on the the outside columns first.

  14. “There are four lights!”

  15. Jack Mitcham

    Ok, it took me forever, but I can eventually make circles appear. However, as soon as I direct my vision to the circle, they turn right back into squares.

    I can only see circles if I’m staring at the X in the center. There really needs to be instructions on this illusion to stare at the X.

  16. Gadfly

    Anyone who can’t see the circles…I couldn’t either at first. The trick for me was to stare at the x in the middle and let peripheral vision eye fatigue do the rest. After fixating for about a minute they just popped out. Once I saw them it was no problem retreiving them.

  17. Peter

    Hack, it took me a while.. now I can see them. (With the same glasses). Nice! Give me an viewing-stereoscopic-pair-with-naked-eyes headache, though. Still, nice.

  18. Annalee Flower Horne

    I saw sixteen circles straight away, and only once I started staring to try to find the “hidden” ones did I see the rectangles.

    Now I can see them both simultaneously, which apparently makes me weird.

  19. I initially saw a couple of the circles while reading the text, and then they disappeared when I moved my eyes to look for more. Now, I can see them at will, at least temporarily, by staring at a fixed point on the screen. However, as with Phil, they can disappear at any time. (Perhaps my eyes moved imperceptibly to me, but enough to throw off the illusion?)

    I definitely agree — “cool”.

  20. Big Al

    That design would make a killer pair of doors if a skilled carpenter could render it in wood.

  21. alfaniner

    I love stuff like this, and this is one of the best I’ve ever seen!

  22. Alex

    I saw the circles and the squares instantly, maybe I’m just special :p

    The floating square one is cool though, but it seems to be loosing.

  23. Peter Eldergill

    Heh, I *finally* saw the circles! (But not ’till the second time ’round)


  24. Quiet Desperation

    I saw zero. I felt left out. :-( Then I zoomed out the image and saw them. Zooming in kills the effect.

  25. TheBlackCat

    I didn’t have much trouble at all. I saw rectangles at first, but it just took me a fraction of a second looking at the x to get the circles, and could switch back and forth easily.

  26. Oh wow, what a tricky tattoo Phil… oh wait never mind. ūüėõ

    Kidding of course, I know about the NDA. I’m not sure I see everything yet, but I have to run, so I’ll have to take a closer look later.

  27. Darth Curt

    I can’t unsee them now!

  28. Andy Beaton

    I can see the circles in the right column without effort. The others, they pop in and out depending on where I’m looking and how much I focus.

  29. ViciousChicken

    Strange, I seem to have had an experience opposite to a lot of the people here. I stared and stared at the X and saw nothing but the squares, but when I read Johnny Vector’s tip to look at the horizontal lines, I immediately saw them. So my peripheral vision did nothing; they only appeared (at first) when I looked directly at them. Maybe it’s because I was sort of expecting the squares themselves to somehow look like circles, not for the circles to appear between the squares.

  30. Haruspex

    I like this illusion not only because of its effectiveness, but also it’s simplicity of recreation in Photoshop.

    New 400×400 image.
    Filter > Render > Clouds.
    Filter > Render > Difference Clouds (repeat Difference Clouds 5 times or until you’re happy).
    Filter > Blur > Motion Blur (Angle 90, Distance 999).
    Use the Elliptical Marquee tool to select, copy, and paste to a new layer 16 evenly spaced circles, direct copies of the background you just made above. You can use Guides from the View menu to help space them by creating a grid with intersections at the points where you want the circles. Set the Elliptical Marquee tool to Fixed Size and hold down the Alt key (option on Mac) to place the selection by center instead of upper-left corner. Rotate each circle individually 90 degrees counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise in RP).

    You’re done.

  31. Haruspex

    Gah, now that I’ve deconstructed the image and understand it’s creation, I can’t see the squares anymore. Once you know the component parts, I easily see the 90 degree circular twists in the background creating the circles. Since nothing other than your own mind is creating the squares (At least, that’s how my brain is accepting the image. You don’t create the squares in Photoshop. You create the circles from a cleverly created background of stripes.) my mind just doesn’t want to see the squares anymore. Rawr.

  32. Randy A

    Phil, I think you meant “red green color blind”. People do have varying sensitivity to color, but if you’re color blind you are missing the gene for a light sensitive pigment in the cones of your eye. The gene is found on the X chromosome — since guys have only one of these, males are much more likely to be color blind.

    I find it fascinating that some people saw the circles right away, while others did not, even with hints. This indicates that we have differences in our eye-brain system that are much more subtle and complex than color blindness. How many disagreements are due to individuals literally seeing things differently?

  33. JulieBD

    I saw the circles right away and so clearly I was wondering what the illusion was! In fact, I had to read the comments to realise there could also be squares (now I see them too). I guess my brain works the opposite way from most people here (I’m a girl – does that explain anything?!?)

  34. Sinyet

    I also see the right column of circles. I can focus on the X to get the others, but when I blink, they’re gone! Maddening and fascinating, in equal measure.

  35. Rebecca

    Ok, I must be really strange. After a lot of effort I discovered I can only see the circles if I am looking directly at the center of one of them, then they all show up. When I kept looking at the x in the center I saw nothing, and if I look away from one of the circles I am back to seeing only rectangles.

  36. Jeremy Henderson

    Whoa! It took me quite awhile, but then all of a sudden they just appeared on the left side of the picture. Still can’t make myself see them on the right though.

  37. Deepsix

    16 circles, of course. It’s just the varying line lengths within each circle that create the circle appearance. With the longest line in the middle and getting shorter as they move out from the center. Once you know what to look for, you can see the circles instantly, even without focusing on the center of the pic for several seconds.

  38. Mike

    At first all I saw was the rectangles, but then it hit me and BAM! Circles. But now my mind is stuck in a state toggling between the two and it doesn’t seem to want to decide which it prefers.. >.< I can even get stuck in a state where the area of the image I'm focusing on looks like squares while the circles emerged toward the edge of the image.

  39. This is a wonderfull site:
    Try this one: http://www.planetperplex.com/nl/item2
    Just click on A or B

  40. Damon

    AMAZING! Undeniable PROOF that aliens aren’t visiting Earth!

  41. Gail

    I see 16 circles.

  42. I know where the square elements are supposed to be, but I can ONLY see circles. Like Julie, I had no idea what the illusion was supposed to be until I started reading the comments.

  43. alfaniner

    Maybe that’s how all those crop circles were discovered — they aren’t actually even there!

  44. Charles

    Gee, Phil, you and Richard Wiseman look an awful lot alike. Are you sure you’re not both the same person?

  45. mariana

    Saw 16 right away and wasn’t sure what the illusion was. I recounted them in case that the illusion made you think there were only 16, and a row of them just disappeared. Then came back. Then while I was staring trying to figure out what had happened they all disappeared. Pretty cool illusion.

  46. Chanelle

    I saw the ones on the right column immediately, and my first answer was “4”, but after looking for just a few seconds, I saw columns 1 & 2, and then column 3 a few seconds later. Column 3 is the most difficult for me to see. Column 4 is very difficult for me to see the squares, the circles are so clear.

    I don’t really get the floating square illusion though. If I scroll the page up and down while looking at the illusion, it does some really cool wavy effects, but just to look at it, I see a square, but it doesn’t float at all.

  47. Travis

    If you relax your focus you can count a total of 36 circles of various sizes. At least I did.

  48. Charles J. Slavis Jr.

    There is a sidewalk artist who is so good in perspective, that he draws holes, swimming pools with people in them and all sorts of illusions in 3-D on a sidewalk. Some have to be viewed from one direction only to maintain the effect. Move to another angle and it looks distorted. He has photos taken of himself interacting with the illusion.

  49. Charles J. Slavis Jr.

    I was happy to see 16.

  50. Charles J. Slavis Jr.

    Look up 3-D side walk artist to see fantastic illusions…great artwork.

  51. Paul A.

    There are NO circles. There are broken lines that suggest circles, but there are no continuous lines that outline circles.

  52. Jeff

    My shop has a old tin ceiling with a similar patern. I saw the circles straight away.

  53. The first few seconds I saw it, I was annoyed about the question as I didn’t see any. But when I read there should be 16 and had another look, I could see them. There really are 16 ‘circles’. I love these things. ūüėÄ

  54. Desiree

    I don’t get this illusion, I saw 16 circles right away and thought I should be seeing something else.
    Then I read the comments and I’m extremely confused as to how anyone has difficulty seeing them.
    I can’t seem to not see them :(

  55. helen

    I saw all of the circles straight away, i hadn’t read the text yet and it took me a moment to be able to see the squares and even then i had to really concentrate. I don’t get how people aren’t seeing the circles it’s the most dominant part of the image :s
    To be honest i just thought the people commenting were being sarcastic or something.

  56. spiral

    There are 20 circles if you look more clearly not the fore mentioned 16.

  57. Elliot

    this was wierd for me because when i first saw this all i saw was circles. i didn’t understand people. i read the comments and i thought everyone was being sarcastic because to me nothing special was going on. but then i asked others i was with what they saw and everyone saw squares so i looked real hard and soon i managed to see all the squares and not the circles. i was just opposite of other people.

  58. Danny

    i dont get it, i didnt even know this was meant to be an illusion cause i saw all the circles immediately and they dont go away, i have to focus to see the squares :(

  59. Very cool illusion!

  60. Phil E. Drifter

    How many circles do i see?

    All of them.

  61. Spuffler

    At first I was like, ok, sarcasm, I might be able to get some of the joke….

    But then I read comment 6, and that was it, I can really see the circles which I couldn’t see before.

  62. Kyle

    Same with Chris, I saw the circles first then I saw the squares.

  63. Joc

    I can’t figure out why everyone thinks it’s hard to see the circles. Must be my new Mac.

  64. Randy

    They are not true circles. If they were, the corner of each rectangular picture frame would not be perfectly diagonal. Instead, your brain must work to ‘fill in’ what’s missing, in order to visualize the circles. Your brain fills in what’s really like a 16-sided polygon, and makes it round. That’s why MOST people see the rectangles or squares first, and only through effort see the circles.

  65. Elfhat

    I see 16 circles. AM I right?


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