Category Archives: Optical Illusions

Making sense of optical illusions

Optical illusion, deconstructedThey say you should believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.

There’s nothing like an optical illusion to remind us of the truth of that aphorism. At Cognitive Daily you’ll find not only a great optical illusion but also an explanation of why we see what we see.

In addition, there’s a link to Arthur Shapiro’s Illusions and Demonstrations for Visual Research, the source for this particular bit of visual trickery, along with several others that delightfully fool the senses.

And for still more, visit a site I recently discovered, Akiyoshi’s Illusion Pages — which actually come with a health advisory.

A treasure trove of optical illusions on display at Illusion of the Year contest site

optical illusionFans like me of optical illusions will want to mark their calendars. May 11, 2008, is the date set for the 4th Annual Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest, held in Naples, Florida. This is a contest that takes illusion seriously — even the trophies that three lucky winners will receive are optical illusions.

You can view the work of previous contestants, which include enough visual marvels to delight and surprise even the most jaded illusion enthusiast, among them the world’s largest lightness illusion, “how many circles do you see?“, and bouncing brains.

A word of caution — you may want to pop a couple of Dramamine before viewing some of the entries.

Incidentally, I’ve added “Optical Illusions” as a category on this blog. Feel free to explore.

(Hat tip to Omni Brain.)

New Year's (Dispute) Resolution #2: Be alert for cognitive errors

Be on the alert for cognitive errorsAnais Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

Indeed, numerous studies have demonstrated how easily our senses can be fooled. We are susceptible to influences of which we are unaware, which can shape our perception and judgments. Consider, for example, the extraordinary optical illusion in a BBC video, “The Mind’s Eye”. As the narrator says,

It’s an astonishing example of how much our visual memories, our imaginations, can influence what is right in front of our eyes.

However, knowing our propensity for making these errors, we can be alert for them. Are you ready?

Optical illusions as a training tool for mastering negotiation and conflict resolution skills

Optical illusions as negotiation and conflict resolution training toolsAs a trainer of negotiation and conflict resolution skills, I love using optical illusions to demonstrate the fallibility of our perception. They alert us that our senses can be unreliable and susceptible to influence. And they remind us that it is always possible to see things differently. The ability to be alert to errors in thinking and judgment that any of us are prone to is of course essential to anyone who is negotiating or resolving a dispute.

Here are two optical illusions I was recently introduced to that I’ve incorporated into my training. Both of us these can be found at Michael Bach‘s web site, 75 Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena.

The first is Shepard’s “Terror Subterra”, a cool interactive illusion that demonstrates how perspective can bias us.

The second is Shepard’s “Turning the Tables”, an interactive illusion with tables that appear to be of different dimensions but are in fact identical, with the ability to test the visual effect for yourself. It’s extraordinary how knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily prevent us from making mistakes in our thinking.

Another cool optical illusion

Optical illusionsIf you liked the right brain/left brain optical illusion I shared with readers last month, then you’ll enjoy this one from the Brain Waves blog: “A Scary Illusion: Mr. Angry and Ms. Calm” which depicts two faces which switch positions with each other, depending upon how close you are to your computer screen as you’re viewing them.

A reminder that things always look different depending on how we’re looking at them.

(Thanks to Stephanie West Allen for the tip.)

Optical illusion claims to show whether your right brain or left brain is dominant

Here’s a cool optical illusion that purportedly determines whether your left brain or right brain is dominant.

For more optical illusion fun, visit this post from the Online Guide to Mediation archives, “When seeing isn’t believing: optical illusions offer insight into conflict and perception“.

(Thanks to

Tunnel vision: studies show that there's plenty we don't see

Studies show how little we actually seeGustave Flaubert once wisely observed, “There is no truth. There is only perception.”

Dispute resolution professionals know only too well how much perception contributes to conflict. We see what we want to see and tune out the rest, or become so focused that we lose sight of what lies in our peripheral vision. Our senses can mislead or fool us, while our assumptions lead us to see what was never there at all or blind us to what is right before our eyes.

Over the years numerous studies have been done of perception and its implications for human behavior and cognition. For example, recent studies demonstrate that we have a propensity to see only the good in outcomes.

One of my favorite studies, hands down, is this one described here in this article from the Daily Telegraph, which reveals just how much we utterly fail to see. Researchers showed subjects a video of two teams of people playing basketball, one in white shirts and the other in black, and instructed the subjects to count the number of times the team wearing white t-shirts bounces the ball. A person in a gorilla costume walks through the players, stops in front of the camera to thump its chest, and then walks off.

Incredibly, half of all subjects failed to see the gorilla, so intent were they on following the movement of the ball.

(Incidentally, I recently worked with a colleague who showed this video to a class she and I were teaching together. In a group of about 60 people, only 20 of them saw the gorilla. When we went back and replayed the video to prove to them that the gorilla in fact was there, no one could believe their eyes.)

To test your own powers of observation, visit this link for a whole range of video demonstrations. Or, to see the gorilla yourself, click here. (The gorilla video takes time to load, so you may not want to attempt this with a dial-up connection.)

Trainers and educators can order online “Surprising Studies of Visual Awareness“, a DVD that collects the videos used in this study.

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SECOND SIGHT: One more look at optical illusions

More optical illusions for mediatorsAs I have observed before—here and, more recently, here—optical illusions are of interest to mediators, particularly because of the way in which optical illusions, like mediation, challenge us to see things differently.

Optical illusions also pointedly remind us of the unreliability of our own senses and the degree to which human perception can be manipulated or altered.

For those of you who can’t get enough of optical illusions, Matthew Homann, president and founder of LexThink, an innovative law practice consultancy, and the author of the excellent the [non]billable hour, has a link on his blog to an especially mesmerizing one.

Accentuate the positive: studies reveal human propensity for reframing to see good in outcomes

Reframing transforms perceptionMediation can help individuals in conflict gain new perspective, bringing fresh insight and understanding of each other and the underlying conflict.

To enable disputants to see things differently, mediators utilize a technique called “reframing” to assist parties to redefine the way in which they understand or conceive of a problem. Bernie Mayer said it best: “The art of reframing is to maintain the conflict in all its richness but to help people look at it in a more open-minded and hopeful way.”

As it turns out, humans already possess a great capacity for seeing things in a more positive light. Those of you who are fascinated by the mysteries of human behavior will find much to ponder in two studies described in this article from the Wall Street Journal which xamined the human propensity to interpret negative outcomes in the most positive light possible.

Most of us would safely assume that we would recognize immediately when an outcome resulted which we did not intend, particularly when that outcome is not our desired one. But a study on decision-making, conducted by researchers at Lund University, challenged that assumption. Subjects were convinced that those less desirable outcomes were the ones they had actually intended, despite the evidence of their own senses.

In addition, research conducted by Professor David Gilbert of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University reveals that our brains “strive to provide the best view of things”. In tests performed using optical illusions in which an object can be perceived in any number of ways, when humans were rewarded for seeing one particular view of that object, they were no longer able to perceive the object’s other views. In other words, we are hard-wired to see things in the best and most rewarding light possible. For further details, read Professor Gilbert’s online article at

This ability to see the best view of events and objects obviously helps us as humans build resiliency and adapt to change, particularly when that change is difficult. It undoubtedly aids us when we are faced with conflict. Reframing comes naturally to us.

(This does raise some intriguing questions for mediation practice. Do we do good or harm when we assist parties in reframing their conflict? Should mediators be wary of exploiting the human susceptibility to see intention and choice in unintended outcomes, to see the positive in less than optimal results? Or does reframing innocuously and simply draw upon our natural propensity to seek the view that is most rewarding and ultimately lead people to optimal choices? And what do these studies suggest about choice and informed decision-making on the part of disputants at the table?)

Ethical questions for mediators aside, Professor Gilbert’s article on his studies includes a link to a brilliant animated version of Necker’s cube, a mind-boggling optical illusion, courtesy of Mark Newbold, which shows how many different ways there are of seeing something. While you’re on that page, be sure to follow the link to, a web site featuring one of the best collections of optical illusions I’ve ever seen.

(With thanks to Brad Spangler and his excellent article on reframing at For a different perspective on reframing, download David Hoffman’s article, “Mediation and the Meaning of Life” (in PDF format), originally published in the Summer 2005 edition of Dispute Resolution Magazine.)

WHEN SEEING ISN’T BELIEVING: Optical illusions offer insight into conflict and perception

Thoughts on assumptions, perception, and conflictAs the saying goes, “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. And we make assumptions all the time—it’s how we’re hard-wired as human beings. (And it’s that very human tendency which keeps mediators busy.)

Unfortunately, of course, our assumptions can sometimes be wrong. They may be based on incomplete or inaccurate data. And we often fail to ask questions, believing that we have all the information we need to draw conclusions.

We also tend to trust our senses to gain information about our world, relying upon our sight and our hearing to gather data—data which in turn forms the basis for the inferences we draw about our interactions with each other.

But our perception can fool us.

Gerry Riskin reminds us of this compellingly in his blog, Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices (which is pretty amazing itself). He offers a link to a real mind-bender of an optical illusion courtesy of MIT which makes you realize just how wrong your perception can be no matter how right you think you are.

(Gerry credits Rocketboom with the story—a video blog featuring a new three-minute news or entertainment video daily.)

For more optical illusions, click here for 55 Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena by Michael Bach, or visit Wikipedia.