What is an Optical Illusion?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

While many people equate optical illusions with mirages, the fact is that the phenomenon is much broader in scope. Essentially, an optical illusion is any instance where the information gathered by the human eye is translated in the brain in such a manner that a visual illusion of some type results. An optical illusion may be utilized in a number of different applications, such as games, psychological evaluation and therapy, and the creation of art.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

One of the generally accepted understandings about the visual phenomena of the optical illusion is that the brain will attempt to process visual data by relating it to the worldview of the individual. That is, the collected life experience of the individual will influence how the brain interprets the visual input that is received. An example of this understanding has to do with inkblots that are sometimes used in counseling and therapy. When asking the patient to identify the shapes that he or she sees in the ink blots, the brain calls upon past experience and knowledge to define the visual information received as some object that is familiar and therefore recognizable.

Visual illusions are also often included in games that are widely distributed. Many people have been invited to stare at what appears to be a jumble of colors or random arrangement of dots on a contrasting color background, then either look away or blink the eyes. Often, an image will appear before the eyes. As with the inkblots, the result of this activity is an optical illusion that is created by drawing on the life experience of the individual.

Even art can be the subject of a limited type of optical illusion. Depending on the background of the viewer, a painting or piece of sculpture may appear to take on elements that are not readily identified by other people. However, it is not unusual for the element to be recognized by others once the detail is pointed out and thus assimilated into the life experience stored in the brain.

An optical illusion may not have any real existence in the form of an object that can be touched. The mirage is an excellent example of this type of illusion. The combination of the desires of the individual along with any formation that the brain can interpret as being a physical manifestation of that desire will lead to the visual illusion. However, the mirage generally disappears from the field of vision when the individual attempts to physically engage the perceived image.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


@JaneAir - That does sound rather frustrating. Take heart though! There are plenty of optical illusions that you don't have to start at and wait for the illusion to appear!

One thing that comes to mind here is the artist M.C. Escher. Most of his pieces involve some kind of optical illusion. But the illusion is usually quite apparent-no staring required!


When I was younger, those optical illusion books where you stare at the image for awhile and the illusion appears were extremely popular. Unfortunately, I could never get it to work for me!

It was so frustrating. I was always wondering if something was wrong with my eyes! I used to fake it though-whenever everyone else was like "oh, I see it!" I would just say I could see the image too.

In fact, I kind of hate optical illusions now because of that. Even the ones that I can see!


There are so many online optical illusions these days, that you can't go to a social networking site without having one pop up on you now. They are used a lot to advertise puzzle and quiz websites.

I really miss the old 3D optical illusion posters they used to sell. They were fantastic pieces of art and I love how they tricked the eye into seeing a hidden image. You would be surprised at how many people actually can't see through an optical illusion. I suppose it must have something to do with the way our brains are wired.

For myself, I still have some old optical illusion art hanging in my bedroom. I suppose I am a bit nostalgic.


I have always loved eye tricks and optical illusions and enjoy puzzle books that include them. One of my favorites is the classic, looking at two lines and trying to figure out which one is longer. Of course there are all those images where you can actually see multiple pictures in them, depending on where you focus your eyes.

There are some really funny optical illusions out there that I like to show my friends when I get the chance. Usually they are illusions that make people think something is moving on screen when it really isn't. I like seeing my friends try and figure out how it works.

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