Size Illusions Trick the Brain

Does size matter? To your brain, it doesn't


"Judge me by my size, do you? Size matters not." — Yoda, Jedi master                        

AS BOTH the midget in the country of Brobdingnag and the giant on the island of Lilliput, Lemuel Gulliver—the protagonist of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels—experienced firsthand that size is relative. As we cast a neuroscientific light on this classic book, it seems clear to us that Swift, a satirist, essayist and poet, knew a few things about the mind, too. Absolute size is meaningless to our brain: we gauge size by context. The same medium-sized circle will appear smaller when surrounded by large circles and bigger when surrounded by tiny ones, a phenomenon discovered by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Social and psychological context also causes us to misperceive size. Recent research shows that spiders appear larger to people who suffer from arachnophobia than to those who are unafraid of bugs and that men holding weapons seem taller and stronger than men who are holding tools. In this article, we present a collection of illusions that will expand your horizons and shrink your confidence in what is real. Try them out for size!


Do you see tiny objects photographed with a macro lens? Look again. This remarkable illusion combines tilt-shift photography—in which the photographer uses selective focus and a special lens or tilted shot angle to make regular objects look toy-sized—with the strategic placement of a giant coin. Art designers Theo Tveterås and Lars Marcus Vedeler, from the Skrekkøgle group, created the enormous 50-cent euro coin from painted and lacquered wood at a 20:1 scale.


At first sight, they look like real-life scenes from the television show Hoarders, precleanup. In reality, they are photographs of 1:6 scale dioramas by St. Louis–born artist Carrie M. Becker. She makes the cardboard boxes, garbage bags and other trash herself. The furniture and tiny objects are from Barbie's dream house and a Japanese miniatures company called Re-Ment. Becker filths up the rooms with actual dirt collected from the filter of a DustBuster, using the occasional Re-Ment meatball to simulate dog poop on the floor. When she photographs the scenes without an external reference, our brain relies on our everyday experience and assumes that the minuscule objects are life size. Only in proximity to an extraneous, actual-size object does the illusion fail.


You can look 10 pounds thinner with a well-known slimming trick: vertical lines elongate your shape and give you a more svelte appearance, right? Wrong! Vision scientists Peter Thompson and Kyriaki Mikellidou of the University of York in England say instead that it is time to ditch your vertical-striped wardrobe and invest in some horizontal-striped outfits. They found that vertical stripes on clothing make the wearer appear fatter and shorter than horizontal stripes do. Notice that the vertical-striped lady seems to have wider hips than the horizontal-striped model in the accompanying cartoons. The phenomenon is based on the Helmholtz illusion, in which a square made up of horizontal lines appears to be taller and narrower than an identical square made of vertical lines. The original report from 1867 of this illusion contained the intriguing reflection that ladies' frocks with horizontal stripes make the figure look taller. Because the remark ran counter to contemporary popular belief, the York researchers decided to put it to the test, finding that 19th-century German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz did indeed have a great eye for fashion.


The full moon rising on the horizon appears to be massive. Hours later, when the moon is high overhead, it looks much smaller. Yet the disk that falls on your retina is not smaller for the overhead moon than it is for the rising moon. So why does the overhead moon seem smaller? One answer is that your brain infers the larger size of the rising moon because you see it next to trees, hills or other objects on the horizon. Your brain literally enlarges the moon to fit the context. Look for this effect the next time you see the moon in real life.

This article was originally published with the title "All Deceptions Great and Small."

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