Looking into Einstein's head (optical illusion)

By Phil Plait | August 3, 2012 7:00 am

Wow, it’s been forever since I’ve posted a brain-melty optical illusion, and I love me some illusions. This one is a variation on one I’ve posted before, showing how an ambiguously lit object freaks your brain out trying to figure out the lighting.

I really wish we had a show as smart and wonderful as QI here in the US. I love Stephen Fry as much as I do illusions!

Anyway, there are lots of examples of this type of illusion. Here’s one of a silhouetted figure spinning that’ll destroy you. This is also similar to the dome/crater illusion as well, where something (a crater) lit from below makes it look like an inverted object (a dome) lit from above.

I have more illusions listed in Related Posts below. Seriously, click the Blue/Green link. Oh my, that one is AWESOME. And people still argue over it in the comments, despite my complete and rock solid proof of what you’re seeing in it. Optical illusions really can mess you up.

Related Posts:

The blue and the green
You spin me right round
This video illusion will destroy your brain
Raising an impact in Africa
Sunsets are Quite Interesting
Sunsets are Fryed astronomy

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Humor, illusion

Comments (26)

Links to this Post

  1. Stuff I’ve Been Reading | August 5, 2012
  1. Gus Snarp

    I love this effect. I used to have a lot of fun with it in computer cartography and remote sensing classes. You can create 3D surfaces from elevation data and adjust the lighting on the 3D model to come from any direction you want. Suddenly a mountain range looks like a canyon, and vice versa. Sometimes you’d take a satellite image and color it a certain way to find the features you’re looking for, but then you have to go back and look at it in another color scheme because you’re so confused about what’s up and what’s down.

  2. Renee Marie Jones

    Absolutely, Gus, and when you are looking for something in an image it helps to turn it every which way until you find the “right” orientation that helps you see it!

  3. Trebuchet

    The first time I saw one of those inverted 3-D images was at the Haunted Mansion is Disneyland. I couldn’t figure out how they were doing it until I got up close.

    A pet peeve on the crater/bump illusion: It frequently occurs on images of celestial bodies which really have no “right” way up. Why don’t they just turn the image so it looks right (light from above) before publishing?

  4. ken y

    We eagerly look forward to the start of each new season of QI; the tenth is next. Each series focuses on subjects starting with a single letter, thus the ‘A series,’ the ‘B series,’ etc. It is, I understand, one of the most popular programs on the BBC which is interesting in itself. It is readily available for download. Look for the ‘XL’ versions which are about 45 minutes long rather than the 30-minute versions which are initially broadcast on BBC One.

  5. One Eyed Jack

    The thing I love most about this effect is that it persists even when you focus on it, fully aware of what is happening. You’re brain insists on interpreting the image to fit a normal face.

    When I get in discussions with people over the value of eye witnesses, this is the sort of thing they find difficult to grasp. Our brains are not video recorders. We don’t have a tape running in our heads that records everything as it happens. We remember general stories which our brain fills with details to fit the story. Those details may have never existed, but our brains will merge them seamlessly so it becomes impossible to tell the difference between fact and filler. Worse yet, in our memories the facts will change with time and outside influence (this is why witnesses at a crime are not allowed to talk to each other until they can give their statements). We have no way of telling what really happened and what has changed. Our mind makes it all seem equally true.

    Our brains trick us all the time and we are generally oblivious to the whole process.

  6. The show, QI (Quite Interesting) really rocks

  7. Huh. One question – what about the shadow? Is that just a trick of the mind, too? I figure there must be an explanation, but in the video, when the inside portion rotates, it still appears to cast a shadow as if it were protruding. Anybody know why?

  8. I love QI. Can’t wait for the new Series.

  9. In addition to being the principle behind the “following heads” at Disney’s Haunted Mansion, this is also the same principle that prevents some people from interpreting orbital photographs of the lunar surface and other mostly-abstract depictions. Some people persistently see craters as if they were popping out from the surface instead of indented. This is because they wrongly extract contour based on shading.

    We’ve determined that human perception is biased to expect light from overhead, likely from our evolutionary history expecting overhead sunlight. Hence we infer that the illuminated sides of contour face upward and the shaded sides face downward. We’ve further determined that human perception is especially attuned to human face recognition. Something that looks even vaguely like a face causes the brain to jump to the conclusion that it is. So here we have two strong cues that dispute the actual lighting and contour.

  10. Tom

    @Trebuchet: I imagine they don’t reorient the images because 1.) it’s an extra step to take, though not exactly a significant one 2.) if the reorientation is at an arbitrary non-90 degree angle, interpolation (and cropping if they want to maintain a regular rectangular format without adding extra matte coloring) must happen introducing error into the pure data, though one could argue this may not matter for a press release image and 3.) depending on the individual image, it may be less aesthetically pleasing to have it reoriented.

    I’d love to also say 4.) it gives a chance to discuss illusions like this and 5.) it allows the public to receive it the same way the scientists see it, but I’m not sure I’d expect those to be in the actual decision process, though they might.

  11. Makoto

    I’ve got a CNC machine at my place, so I often see this sort of illusion – even knowing it’s a hollowed out shape that the machine may have just produced, my brain keeps seeing the convex version, right up until I tilt it at the right angle, get close, or touch it. Fascinating!

  12. Renee Marie Jones

    Awesome, Phil, thanks. Some of these, like the spinning girl, don’t seem to work for me. This one is terrific. I love the spirals, too.

    When you show illusions and puzzles like this you remind me how much I miss Martin Gardner’s columns. Keep them coming!

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    We have QI show on ABC TV in Australia too. Love that show. Awesome illusion. ūüėÄ

    Won’t any US channel – PBs even perhaps – broadcast it in syndication or whatever-ya-call-it?

  14. Dutch Railroader

    @3 – Yeah, you beat me to the haunted house! The most eery thing is that the face appears to track you as you move. Every time I go to the haunted house I love seeing the illusions there. The other great trick is projecting a movie of a talking face onto a 3D bust…

  15. lepton

    At the beginning of the video, I have NO problem at all to see the concave shape of the real model, but, viewed on the screen (inside the video), I DO have difficulties to perceive it as concave shape even I tried.

    So, either the computer rendering is messing with me, or this screen inside screen situation has some effect I don’t fully understand.

  16. mike burkhart

    I think Einstine would have loved it. this is the explantion for the man or rabit in the Moon and the the faces on Mars (in addition to the one in Cydoina there is the Galle crater and one that aperrs near the Libyan motes) and the Mickey Mouse crater on Mericury

  17. Amos Newcombe

    Northern-hemisphere mountainous regions in Google maps frequently look inverted, because sunlight comes from the south, not the “conventional” upper left.

  18. Wzrd1

    @13, Messier Tidy Upper, the only way we’d get QI in the US if it’s called Housewives something. :/

  19. Nic

    Catch QI on YouTube. All or most episodes are there.
    It IS exceptionally clever and ‘Quite Interesting’ (QI? get it) programme.
    Fry is always wonderful, as is Alan Davies who plays the fool a little – make no mistake Alan is no fool.

    But it is about comedy and wit – and Phil you picked a nice clip.
    But here in the UK we get it all the time. :)
    And it’s wonderful.

  20. ken y

    Ah, no – it will never be seen in the US, especially on PBS. Language is usually much too salty for our delicate ears!

  21. Tom

    It’s actually been tried to be brought to the US (my understanding is re-airing, not running our own new version with new hosts), but the hurdle has been copyrighting fees for images used in many episodes, they’re only licensed for UK use at the moment.

    That said, I’m not sure I’d want them to remake it as a totally new version because they surely would botch it up like the train wreck that is American Top Gear.

  22. Brandon

    I LOVE illusions like this.
    I first discovered how illusions like this work when I was 12 or 13 and a huge devotee of MST3K. I swore up and down that everytime I looked at Crow in the theater, it looked like he was looking toward the audience and not at the movie.

  23. One Eyed Jack

    @ #7. VMtheCoyote

    I didn’t notice the shadow effect until you mentioned it. I had to look at it again.

    I think the shadow we see is actually on the back of the figure. The figure appears to be made of a transluscent plastic. The shadow is being cast on the back of the object, but can be seen from the front due to the transluscent nature of the figure.

    The shadow certainly adds significantly to the illusion and I would guess that the material used for the figure and the placement of the lighting were no accident. Clever stuff.

  24. Willy

    Indeed, cool illusion if nothing at all new. I remember similar things from Perceptual Psych
    classes in the late 60’s.

    I do wish we had access to QI on BBC America. It is great! All we get from American Networks is American Idol, “Pregnant Transvestite Housewives of the Jersey Shore” and other such drivel!

  25. Steve Ulven

    I actually have that exact illusion. I think I got it from Grand Illusions in the UK I believe. It was really expensive with shipping, but it’s still one of my favorite illusions.


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