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20 must-see optical illusions that will blow your mind

One of the best optical illusions shows a sphere on a square with shapes that appear to be moving but are not
(Image credit: Akiyoshi Kitaoka)

Optical illusions come in many different forms, and we can't get enough of them. Many optical illusions reveal fascinating secrets about how our vision and brains work, how we perceive colour and light, and, many are just plain confounding. They're a huge hit on social media at the moment but optical illusions are nothing new. Optical illusions have been around for centuries and in many different cultures, delighting and confusion people in equal measure.

There are several different kinds of optical illusions, and most usually fall in one of four categories. First there are physiological optical illusions. These are the 'true' optical illusions – images that make us interpret them the wrong way, for example a still image that appears to be moving or an image that appears to be a particular colour when it isn't. These are caused by physiological factors in the way our eyes and brains interpret elements such as brightness, angles, or movement.

Then there are cognitive illusions, which are just as fascinating because they can be interpreted differently by different people. The classic examples of these are the optical illusions used in psychological texts, where an image could be interpreted in two different ways. And finally there are literal optical illusions, which aren't exactly illusions since they've been created intentionally to confuse the mind. Well-known artists such as René Magritte created these kinds of illusions. There are also accidental optical illusions caused by things like atmospheric phenomena and the similarities or the position of an object at a particular moment (see the floating ship below).

We've picked out some of our favourite optical illusions of each kind in our round up of must-see optical illusions below. We've included some classics from the past and some new creations too, all to leave you bewildered and amazed. If you're left wanting more, check out our favourite trompe l'oeil illusions. Or if you want to have a go at creating your own illusion, make sure you have a look at our guide on how to download Photoshop so you have the tools you need to make digital designs.

01. The hypnotic circle optical illusion

A hypnotic circle optical illusion that appears to show white circles rolling around the inside of a red circle

(Image credit: Brusspup via YouTube)

Created by Brusspup, the first optical illusion in our list is a bit of a geometric trick. The white circles appear to form a circular shape that rolls around the inside of the circumference of the red circle. But of course, this is an optical illusion so that couldn't actually be the case. The white circles are actually all moving in a straight lines, the timing just happens to create the illusion that they're moving in a circle. See the full video if you don't believe us!

02. The spinning vortex optical illusion

The spinning optical illusion

Can you make this optical illusion stay still? (Image credit: Vectordivider via Getty Images)

One type of optical illusion that we can't get enough of are those that appear to be moving but they're actually still images. These are examples of what are known as physiological optical illusions – they're caused by the over stimulation of the brain’s senses as a result fo the eye seeing too much colour, light, movement or dimensions to be able to process. 

With its purple and yellow vortex-like design, this one's hypnotic, but we promise it's not a gif or a video. It's a completely still image. What happens is that the combination of the different patterns, light and levels tricks your mind into thinking it's moving when you let your eyes wander over the design. Concentrate on the very centre of the image and you should be able to see it stop.

03. The rotating horse optical illusion

A still from the rotating horse optical illusion video

Which way does the horse rotate? (Image credit: TrippyHub)

The rotating horse optical illusion has us all asking, which way is it turning? The geometric equine kind of looks as though it snakes around, and many users on TikTok have theorised about the direction of the horse, but we still have no idea which way it turns.

04. How many horses are there?

The horse optical illusion on a gradient background

How many horses can you see? (Image credit: Bev Doolitte/National Institute of Enviromental Health Sciences)

Another equine-themed illusion, this one has been confusing viewers since the 1970s. The design begs the question, how many horses are in the painting? And despite how many times we counted the horses, we never got the answer that the artist, Bev Doolittle, revealed as correct. This is an optical illusion of a different kind. It's what's known as a literal optical illusion since it was created intentionally by the artist to hide or disguise things in plain view, without relying on our minds to trick us. We love them all the same.

05. The hidden tiger optical illusion

The hidden tiger optical illusion

Can you see the hidden tiger? (Image credit: Rusty Rust)

This is another clever optical illusion from an artist. Can you spot the hidden tiger in the picture? No, not the first tiger you see, the one that's showing us its teeth. The hidden tiger. We promise it's there lurking there in the image, and you'll kick yourself when you see it. This one is also a literal optical illusion, but one with an amusing cognitive element that made us smile.

06. The cat on the stairs optical illusion

A photo of a cat walking on some stairs

Which way is the cat headed? (Image credit: 9Gag)

From big cats to small cats. This feline-themed optical illusion has divided the internet. It seems as though no one can decide whether the cat is walking up or down the stairs in this post. While the illusion has been doing the rounds online since 2015, we're still none the wiser about the direction of the cat. See our pick of the best animal optical illusions for more animal-oriented treats.

07. The impossible slide optical illusion

If you're a really big fan of optical illusions, how about one that you can 3D print? That's exactly what Struck Duck did with this mindbender. In this optical illusion, a ball that appears to roll UP the 3D printed slide, defying gravity. But if you watch the full video, you'll see the illusion depends on the angle that you view it at.

08. The Phantom Queen optical illusion

A screenshot from The Phantom Queen illusion video on YouTube

The winner of the 2021 Illusion of the Year contest deserved its place (Image credit: Best Illusion of the Year Contest)

This mind-boggling video features the 2021 winner of the Illusion of the Year contest. The Phantom Queen optical illusion sees the reflection of an invisible queen piece on a chessboard. The video pans round to reveal a clever 3D shape that aligns with the pattern of the chessboard. Hidden under that shape is the Queen, making it look as though she wasn't even on the board. 

09. Moving pictures 

Akiyoshi Kitaoka's optical illusion

How is it moving? (Image credit: Akiyoshi Kitaoka)

This mystical moving optical illusion was created by artist Akiyoshi Kitaoka (opens in new tab). The design uses the 'anomalous motion phenomenon' to make it look as though it's moving when in reality its a totally static image. Our brain tricks us into thinking the photo is moving because of how the image hits our retinas at a particular location. 

10. 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)

Next up on our list of optical illusions is this eye-crossing striped affair, shared by Dr Michelle Dickinson (opens in new tab) 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?

11. Spinning discs optical illusion

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 (opens in new tab), and inspired by experimental psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka (opens in new tab). No, like the first optical illusion we saw in our list, this is not a GIF but a still image – though the wheels appear to turn in front of your eyes. This happens because of how your eyes process an image, scanning it repeatedly while autofocusing and adjusting. Like in the previous example, there's a way to make it stop – try focusing on one single wheel.

12. How many numbers optical illusion

The black and white illusion

How many numbers do you see? (Image credit: benonwine on Twitter)

This number-themed illusion had the internet utterly stumped as it asked the question, how many numbers for you see? At first glance, it looks as though there are only three numbers, but the closer and harder you stare, the more numbers start to appear. There are seven numbers in total, but what numbers are they exactly? 

13. True Cyan optical illusion

@kbacon (opens in new tab)

You’ve probably never seen this color before... #womeninstem #voiceacting #science

♬ Blade Runner 2049 - Synthwave Goose (opens in new tab)

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.

14. Floating ship optical illusion

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. This is one of what is a whole sub-genre of optical illusions – accidental optical illusions.

15. The union flag optical illusion

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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. Still celebrating Jubilee Day? Make sure you also see the Queen Elizabeth II optical illusion!

16. 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 (opens in new tab), you can find out more about this illusion here.

17. The 2-in-1 spinning optical illusion

A gif of the optical illusion

This illusion changes where you look  (Image credit: Lenstore)

This hypnotic optical illusion actually has two mind-bogglers in one. Depending on where you look at the design, the dots will either appear to change colour or completely vanish. Simply follow the light grey spot around or stare at the cross in the centre for 30 seconds to experience the design's multiple illusions. This one, created by Lenstore, made it to our pick of the best optical illusions we've seen this year.

18. What colour is the circle?

A gif optical illusion

(Image credit: Lenstore)

Created by the same people behind the optical illusion above, this optical illusion employs a similar concept, but is no less fun to look at despite its simplicity. The circle appears to change colour as it moves from left to right on a gradient background. But it doesn't. The circle actually stays the same colour, all that's changed is the colour of the background that you're seeing it against. This is because the brain perceives colour differently depending on what is surrounding an object. We love an optical illusion with a scientific explanation and that gives us something to bear in mind when using colour in design.

19. The world's oldest optical illusion?

an optical illusion with an elephant and bull carved into stone

This could be one of the oldest optical illusions (Image credit: KARTY JazZ Wikimedia)

People have marvelled at the joy of optical illusions for a long time, but just how long? This piece of sculpture at Airavatesvara Temple in Tamil Nadu, India, is a contender for the oldest optical illusion around. Among the stunning 12th-century Dravidian architecture and carved ornamentations of chariots and avatars, there appear to be two conjoined creatures with a single head. Focus on the creature on the right, and you should see an elephant, while if you cover the body and legs of the elephant, the animal on the left is clearly a bull.

20. 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 (opens in new tab) (as spotted by 7News (opens in new tab)), 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.

If you've been loving these optical illusions and would like to have a go at creating your own, then make sure you check out our roundup of the best Adobe Creative Cloud discounts, or just scroll down to check out some of the latest deals. 

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Georgia Coggan is currently Creative Bloq's Acting Deputy Editor. Georgia started her freelance career working for CB in 2018, and since then has worked across the site on news, ecom, SEO content... basically anything and everything. Now covering the Dep Ed role for three months, Georgia is a slave to the style guide, a logo geek and loves all things London Underground (its branding history, and not at rush hour). 

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