The Boring Figure: Anything But Boring

Longtime fans of the MOI NYC blog will remember one of our first posts, where we talked about the three different types of optical illusions. The Boring figure is an example of a cognitive illusion, and it’s anything but a snoozer. In fact, it’s probably the world’s most famous (or at least most recognizable) type of optical illusion. Among the most popular with hardcore illusion-lovers and casual admirers alike, the illusion that we are going to focus on today has been featured on the MOI NYC blog several times. 

Finally, it has its well-deserved moment to shine. Without further ado, let’s talk about the Boring figure. 

The Discovery of the Boring Figure

The Boring figure was named after psychologist Edward Boring, not because of its lack of amusement. Boring wrote a paper about the illusion, but he didn’t find his primary example of the Boring figure until a little bit later in his studies. Boring started out illustrating the Boring figure using the example of how the moon seems to be physically larger when it is on the horizon, rather than when it’s high in the sky.

However, Boring’s favorite example of the Boring figure is the 1915 piece by William Ely Hill — My Wife and Mother in Law.

The History of My Wife and Mother in Law

Boring favored My Wife and Mother in Law, calling it the perfect ambiguous illusion. Which, to remind you, is an illusion where the image shifts from one image to another while being perceived. We love them because what the viewer sees first in the image depends entirely on their own perception.

The drawing "My Wife and Mother in Law" which is an optical illusion that shows one figure which can be perceived as either a young woman or an old woman.
The drawing “My Wife and Mother in Law,” originally by William Ely Hill. Who do you see first?

My Wife and Mother in Law was first published on a postcard in 1888. The illusion officially got its name in 1915, when it was published in a magazine by cartoonist William Ely Hill. He challenged readers to find both the wife and the mother-in-law hidden in the image.

We won’t get too much into how the My Wife and Mother-in-Law illusion works right now, but this article does a great job of explaining it if you want to read up further. To this day, people claim that being older causes them to see the mother-in-law first, and being younger causes them to see the wife. Which did you see first?

Ambiguous Figure Illusions in Pop Culture

Throughout history, artists have had a blast with the Boring figure. You’ve probably already seen the Rabbit-Duck (pictured below) and All is Vanity illusions. Artists such as Salvador Dali, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, and Oleg Shuplyak also use the Boring figure in their work. 

The Rabbit Duck ambiguous figure illusion used for the MOI NYC blog.
The Rabbit Duck ambiguous figure illusion.

Do you have a favorite ambiguous figure illusion? If you’re still trying to decide, then a trip to the Museum of Illusions NYC might be in order. There’s no better way to round out your summer plans in NYC than with a scroll through our galleries. Click here to book your visit! We can’t wait to meet you!