Optical Illusions: A Brief History

Welcome to the Museum of Illusions NYC blog! If you’re here, it probably means that you love illusions just as much as we do. Optical illusions are fascinating, confusing, and sometimes a bit headache-inducing. Today, when we think of illusions, we think of David Copperfield. Or of the latest mind-trick that is going viral on Twitter. But where did it all start? To kick off our blog, we thought it would be fun to give a brief overview of the history of illusions. After all, we’re the Museum of Illusions- so this is kind of our thing. 

Optical Illusions have been occurring naturally since before mankind. In fact, you probably encounter illusions in your daily life more than you think. Has the road ahead of you ever looked wet on a hot day? Or has the moon ever looked exceptionally large when it’s closer to the horizon? You guessed it, those are nature’s optical illusions. Artists and performers alike have been able to capture this natural magic and present it in dizzying ways. Let’s start from (what we’re pretty sure is) the beginning.

Ancient Greece

You might be surprised to learn that historians theorize that the earliest documented manmade optical illusions occurred in Ancient Greece. You’ll find illusions in a lot of ancient Greek architecture and art. Tricks that make flat surfaces look round, and round surfaces appear to be flat. In fact, one of the most beloved Greek monuments, The Parthenon, has no straight lines or right angles. You read that right. The angular structure that we all know and love is entirely made up of domes and curves. The flat and straight appearance of the temple is all thanks to optical illusions that trick the observer into seeing perfection and precision where there isn’t any. 

A picture looking up at The Parthenon. Museum of Illusions optical illusion example.
The Parthenon. Looks pretty perfect, right? That’s the power of optical illusions.

All of the big-name Greek philosophers had a theory about why the brain processes optical illusions in the way that it does. Aristotle, Plato, Epicharmus, and Protagoras all took a crack at trying to discover the truth behind why our brains trick us into seeing something that isn’t there. In the end, the consensus was that our brains and our senses betrayed us when we came across an illusion- which is pretty much right on course.

Optical Illusions in the 19th Century

Fast-forwarding in time brings us to 1800, which was the start of a big century for optical illusions. Why? Because that’s when researchers Johannes Mueller and J.J. Oppel began their near lifelong search for the answer to the question- “What the heck is the deal with these optical illusions?” Or, something like that. Mueller and Oppel were psychologists who published 12 theories as to why the brain is tricked by illusions. Together, the psychologists were able to bring a better public understanding of the science behind optical illusions.

The 19th century also introduced the world to M.C. Escher. Escher was an artist who produced mostly wood carvings and lithographs and his work featured mostly, you guessed it, optical illusions. To this day Escher remains one of the most famous illusion artists- with his never-ending staircases and tessellations still stumping the general public. 

In the same century (told you it was a big one), German physicist Herman Von Helmholtz determined that an illusion occurs when our preconceived notion of reality does not match up with what we are seeing. He coined this occurrence a “cognitive illusion,” and went even further by breaking cognitive illusions into four types- distorting illusions, paradox illusions, fiction illusions, and ambiguous illusions. 

M.C. Escher’s staircase piece (entitled “Relativity”), is an example of a paradox illusion, as it presents a situation that cannot be replicated in real life.

20th Century Optical Illusions & Op Art

In 1915, cartoonist W.E. Hill drew what is now one of the most recognizable optical illusions, entitled “My Wife and Mother-in-Law.” The drawing is actually of two women merged together. One is a young woman who is facing away from the viewer. The other, an old woman looking down and towards the left. What people see first depends on their own perspective. Looking at it from a different angle will allow observers to see both of the women. 

The abstract art world was taken by storm in the 1960s by “Op Art,” or art that contained abstract illusions. Fitting perfectly with the time period, the art was groovy, colorful, and a little bit trippy. Op Art contained hidden images, illusory vibrations and motion, and other techniques that tricked the eye into seeing something that wasn’t there. The art movement was picked up by famous artists such as Vasarely, and it was then that optical illusions became much more popular and widely known. 

In 1971, another famous illusion was discovered, and this time by accident. The Cafe Wall Illusion was discovered by neuroscientist Richard Gregory when he and one of his colleagues noticed a strange visual occurrence on a cafe wall. Although the grout lines between the tiles were straight, when stared at directly they appeared curved and warped. You can observe the cafe wall illusion for yourself below, or see one in real life at our museum.

A picture of three of the optical illusions on display at the Museum of Illusions New York.
Just a few of the optical illusions available to experience firsthand at the Museum of Illusions NYC.

Why Illusions Trick Us

To put it simply, illusions still trick us because our brains are taking a break. Our brains form preconceived notions of things like shape and color. When those notions aren’t actually present, our brain starts to fill in the gaps. Optical illusions trick our brains by forcing it to fill in a piece of the puzzle that isn’t there.  

Now, we see optical illusions going viral on the internet every day (we won’t even mention the ever-polarizing dress incident). However, it’s always helpful to remember your roots. Illusions have been playing mind-tricks on people since the dawn of time.

The Museum of Illusions NYC

Perhaps the most momentous occurrence in the history of illusions was the opening of the Museum of Illusions in New York City in September of 2018. Just kidding, we’re at least the second or third most important thing to have ever happened to illusions.

Visitors from all over the world can drop into our museum in the Meatpacking District and experience the fun, wonder, and confusion of the world’s most famous optical illusions. More than a 2D experience, we encourage hands-on learning in spaces such as our popular Ames Room and Infinity Room. Come visit us, and experience the magic (and the science behind the magic) for yourself. 

For more information on hours of operation and ticket prices, visit our website.