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12 mind-bending optical illusions

Optical illusions are some of the oldest examples of creativity, with the roots of this baffling form of design traced back to the 5th Century BC. Since then, new illusions have confused the world on a regular basis, encompassing hand-drawn illustrations, video and everything in between

If you enjoy having your mind boggled, you're in luck because we have found the very best optical illusions around and listed them for you here. We've included a mix of our favourite classic illusions and some brand new ones too. For more mind-bending action, see our pick of incredible trompe l'oeil illusions. Want to make your own? Try our pick of the best digital art software.

01. What's hiding amongst the stripes?

Optical illusions: Striped

Shake your head and watch a furry friend appear (Image credit: Dr Michelle Dickinson via Twitter)

First up on our list of optical illusions is this eye-crossing striped affair, shared by Dr Michelle Dickinson on Twitter. It springs into life when you shake your head vigorously from side to side (carefully!). An image will start to appear amongst the lines. Which type of furry friend do you see appearing?

02. Spinning discs

Optical illusions: Spinning discs

Your head might be spinning (Image credit: Cliver Gifford via The Guardian)

This is an illusion, featured in Clive Gifford's book Eye Benders, and inspired by experimental psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. No, it's not a GIF but a still image – though the wheels appear to turn in front of your eyes. It happens because of how your eyes process an image, scanning it repeatedly while autofocusing and adjusting. If it feels too much, try concentrating on a single wheel to make it all stop.

03. Impossible Trident

Optical illusions: Impossible trident

How many prongs do you see? (Image credit: Illusions Index)

One of the most well-known illusions (but one of the best) is the Impossible Trident. It clearly has three prongs. Except, well, it doesn't. In fact, the central prong is formed from the empty space between the prisms. When you follow the prongs up to the top, you can see it only has two openings, with the top surface of the furthest prism transforming into the third prong and the surface becoming the empty space.

04. True Cyan

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Causing a storm on social media, this illusion shows you a true cyan colour – something that up until now your computer screen has been unable to do. Cyan is the perfect combination of red, green and blue and your monitor usually has to settle for a close approximation of the colour. But this illusion, which requires you to focus on the inside of a red circle, will show you the real thing – when you close your eyes afterwards, that is. Viewed by over 21 million people so far, it's sure captured people's attention. Read more about it here.

05. Floating ship

Optical illusions: Floating ship optical illusion

This one is out in the wild (Image credit: David Morris)

Most optical illusions seem to be handmade or digital creations, but every now and again an example appears out in the wild – and these incredible 'floating' ships might just be the most mind-boggling phenomenon we've seen. A walker was stunned to see a boat hovering above the water in Cornwall, and a photo of his discovery quickly went viral. 

06. Union Flag

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Observing the world in all its colourful glory is something many of us take for granted. But how different do things look if you're colour blind? In a video created by the BBC back in 1985, an optical illusion featuring the Union flag was created to educate people on how colour blindness works. 

Viewers are asked to stare at the dot for 20 seconds, after which the screen goes white and, due to a "three receptor phenomena" the flag will appear in its original red, white and blue colours. This, as the narrator explains, is due to said phenomena forcing other colour receptors to take over when some "start to tire".  Despite the illusion first being shown over 35 years old, it's still completely mind-boggling. 

07. Rotating boxes

These boxes are clearly spinning on the spot, right? Nope! They are, in fact, totally still, with the illusion caused by the flashing background. Focusing on one of the cube's corners stops the spin so you can prove to yourself what is actually happening. Shared by Twitter user @jagarikin, you can find out more about this illusion here.

08. Duck or rabbit?

Optical illusions: Duck Rabbit

It's a duck. No, it's a rabbit.  (Image credit: Illusion Index)

Is it a duck? Is it a rabbit? Actually, it's both. This ambiguous image was originally published anonymously, but the first record of this confusing animal(s) is from way back in 1900 when it was noted by Joseph Jastrow. It's one of the most famous optical illusions around but if you're struggling to see it, imagine the duck's beak is also the rabbit's ears and you should succeed. Still sending you quackers? Turn your head to the left to make the rabbit appear.

09. World's oldest optical illusion?

Optical illusions: oldest illusion

This could be the oldest illusion  (Image credit: Duncan Caldwell)

This could be the original duck-rabbit-style illusion, created in prehistoric times and found in a cave in France in 2010. Comprised of two overlapping images carved out of rock, which look like a mammoth and bison, depending on which way you look at it. While it may well be the first optical illusion in practice, there's no telling if it was actually meant that way or if it was just an exercise in overlapping characteristics. But, since both art and magic are in the eye of the beholder, we think if it acts like an illusion, we're happy to call it one.

10. The False Mirror

Rene Magrittes "The False Mirror" was used to create this optical illusion. "Simply stare at the white pupil of the eye, try not to move your eyes or blink too much," explains its designer, YouTube user luciddreamhypnosis

"When the image switches, it will appear as if it is the original full colour painting, in fact what you are looking at is a combination of the sensory input from the Black and White image combined with the negative afterimage left due to fatigue of your eyes photoreceptors (mostly cone cells)."

11. Sonos

Optical illusions: Sonos

Scroll up and down to see the soundwaves pulsate (Image credit: Sonos)

An optical illusion is a brilliant way for a brand to grab attention, as proved by the ever-popular Sonos illusion. A beautiful graphic in its own right, scrolling up and down makes the logo push out pulsating soundwaves. Created in 2015, the design itself is part of an identity created in 2015 by Bruce Mau Design, which had the aim of getting Sonos on the map for a wider audience.

12. Super Illusion Brothers

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This illusion is one of the newest optical illusions we've encountered, and also one of the most mesmerising. Dubbed 'Super Illusion Brothers', it depicts a bunch of figures walking up the steps and jumping off the top. Doesn't it? You won't be surprised to hear (this is an optical illusion post, after all) that, no it doesn't. Those little green people are actually completely static. This is a ‘bright phi' illusion, which plays with our brain's perception of bright objects. 

According to Stanford University (as spotted by 7News), this is a "basic effect" whereby "If a bright point appears at one position, and then reappears at a position shifted to the right, we tend to see a single object moving left to right." Good to know.

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