This head-spinning optical illusion has just broken my brain

You may have noticed that we're fond of a good optical illusion here at Creative Bloq, but some of them should really come with a health warning. This one doing the rounds at the moment is severely headache-inducing, especially if you try to take on the challenge of counting how many circles it shows.

The optical illusion, which has become popular on Imgur and other platforms, shows what appears to be a spiral or a series of interlinked circles or overlapping circles. But alas, while that might be what we see, our brain is fooling us. The image actually shows a number of separate concentric circles – but can you count how many? Just be warned that trying to do so may generate serious nausea. This might be one for our pick of the best optical illusions of the year.

Can you count the circles in this optical illusion? (Image credit: Pinna & Gregory)

We've tracked down the image, and while it's resurfaced lately, it actually comes from a 2002 academic articled entitled Shifts of Edges and Deformations of Patterns written by Baingio Pinna and Richard L Gregory. Named Pinna’s Illusory Intertwining Effect, the figure looks like a warped spiral comprising black and white and black squares on a grey background, but it's actually made up of concentric circles.

The confusion occurs because our visual system receives contradictory stimuli, some tell us 'circle,' and other 'spiral.' While the squares form rings, their slant is consistent with what we expect from a spiral. Faced with this contradiction, in our peripheral vision, the spiral prompts win because we can't keep track of all the visual details. The brain opts for a 3D interpretation since that's the kind of scene it evolved to understand. OK, enough science. How many circles are there? 

An optical illusion showing what appears to be a spiral made of black and white rectangles, with coloured circles overlaid to illustrate that it actually shows concentric circles

All is revealed (Image credit: Pinna & Gregory / Future)

We overlaid coloured circles over the image to make it easier to separate and identify each one. This should, if you've not got a migraine yet, allow you to identify five concentric circles in the optical illusion For more optical illusion goodness see our must-see optical illusions, and if you want to make your own, consider investing in the best graphic design software.

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Joseph Foley

Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design, production and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.