Get Moving with Illusory Motion!

If you’ve only ever encountered one optical illusion in your entire life, chances are that it was illusory motion. These classic illusions have been tricking people since their elementary school days, and have become even more popular on social media. There is a reason that Illusory Motion has captured our hearts, and our minds, for decades now- it’s a classic. Plus, it tells us a lot more than we think about our vision and our perception. Today, we’re stepping into the world of illusory motion, but don’t look for too long or you might get dizzy.

A Brief History of Illusory Motion

The history of Illusory Motion can actually be traced back to Aristotle.  Not quite the illusion as we know it today (more on that in a second), Aristotle noted the phenomenon that many of you have probably discovered yourself. He discovered that when you stare at something that is in motion for long enough, there is still the perception of motion present when you look away. For example, if you stare at a waterfall for more than 30 seconds, when you look away it will probably appear as though the world around you is slowly moving downwards.

The illusory motion effect that you are probably most familiar with is Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s Rotating Snakes. The same general idea as Aristotle’s discovery, Rotating Snakes works in the opposite way. Meaning, viewers are looking at a still image that appears to be in motion.

Illusory motion really hit mainstream culture during the 60’s Op Art movement. Illusions really took the general public by storm during this period because of the psychedelic nature of the decade. The trippy images were everywhere and stumped millions. How could a seemingly stagnant image give the illusion of motion?

How Illusory Motion Works

Scientists are actually still torn on why this illusion takes place. They do, however, have a few theories. One thing that most agree upon is that the illusion has a lot to do with color. Take a look at the image below. It definitely appears to be in motion (and no, it’s not a gif). But also look at the colors in the pattern.  There are black and white bands around each of the green dots.

An example of illusory motion, as used by the MOI NYC.
A moving picture illusion. Pay attention to the black and white bands around the green dots. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Now that you’re sufficiently motion-sick, let’s talk about what these bands might mean.

One theory is that the color white triggers our retinal receptors “on,” while the color black triggers them “off.” When black and white are positioned in a certain pattern, and so close together, our retinal receptors are repeatedly switching between “on” and “off,” which our brains perceive as motion.

Another theory is that the movement is primarily due to the asymmetrical pattern. This is why some illusions appear to be “pulsing” or “creeping,” while others appear to be rotating. Ming-Te Chi, the researcher who theorized about patterns, also noted that high-contrast colors are more likely to create the motion effect.

MOI New York Illusions

Because illusory motion is such a popular illusion (and because we love it so much), our galleries are chock full of these trippy illusions. Of course, the effect is much cooler in person, but check out just two of the moving picture illusions that we have below.

The rotating circles illusion that is a part of the Museum of Illusions NYC galleries.
The rotating circles illusion at the Museum of Illusions NYC.

The above illusion is our rotating circles illusion, which always wows our guests. Below, is an illusion that definitely only works in person- our Turn Tables exhibit. Double the motion, double the fun- you give this installation a spin and feel like you’re being hypnotized.

The Turn Table exhibit at the Museum of Illusions NYC.
The Turn Table Illusion is one of our tactile illusory motion exhibits at the MOI NYC.

Are you ready to come see the rotating circles, turn tables, and more in person at the Museum of Illusions NYC? Click here to book your visit! Oh, and by the way, we are currently offering an essential work discount, so be sure to check it out!