If 2020 hasn’t already turned your brain into a barely functional pile of gray mush, the Best Illusion of the Year Contest has just the thing to push it over the edge. Every year a group of neurologists, visual scientists, ophthalmologists, and artists create and judge the best mind-benders of the year, and this year mathematician Kokichi Sugihara claimed the top prize again with an impossible 2D staircase illusion made 3D.
If you ever checked out a book on optical illusions from your local library as a kid, you probably saw the classic Schröder’s stairs illusion: a 2D illustration of zig-zag lines that creates the appearance of a staircase descending from left to ride, or a staircase flipped upside-down, depending on how your brain is processing it. Sugihara managed to recreate the illusion as a 3D model with a staircase that always appears to descend from left to right, even when it’s spin 180 degrees around.
Matt Pritchard’s ‘The Real Thing??’ isn’t an illusion as we typically expect them, but more an exploration of how our brain perceives the world around us and how it creates templates to speed up our image processing that occasionally leads to misinterpretations. A clever mockup fools the brain into thinking that a frame sliding into place is a mirror reflecting a pop can in the foreground, but for a split second after the frame is revealed to be just a window looking at another can, the brain still believes it’s looking at a reflection: an illusion that’s still not completely understood.
The impossible object illusion, made popular by artists like Maurits Cornelis Escher, is an art form mostly confined to 2D representations, like Escher’s Waterfall where a flowing stream behaves like a perpetual motion machine feeding itself an unending current. Daniël Maarleveld adds 3D animations making his impossible typography even harder for your brain to comprehend. The shapes of the letters appear both rigid and flexible, concave surfaces become convex as they rotate, and determining each character’s direction of spin changes depending on what part you’re looking at.
Adding a moving reference point can often alter our brain’s positional perception of an object, or multiple objects in the case of these ladybugs. In the initial animation, both ladybugs are vertically aligned, but as they’re individually revealed inside a frame moving from left to right, the top ladybug appears shifted to the right while the lower ladybug is positioned more to the left. In the second animation, a single lady bug appears to move around an oval track, but when the moving frame is removed, it’s revealed it’s actually just four vertically-aligned ladybugs facing different directions. Your brain adds locomotion where none actually exists.
To see the optical illusions from all the top 10 finalists this year head on over to the Best Illusion of The Year Contest website, but grab a bottle of Aspirin first, your brain might need it by the time you’ve worked through the entire list.