Illusions: What's in a Face?

This is the ninth article in the Mind Matters series on the neuroscience behind visual illusions
1 of 10

Coffee Face

Our face-detection neural machinery can be overloaded. There’s a man’s face hidden in this image. But before we spill the beans about its location, look around and see if you can find it yourself.....[ More ]

Mooney Faces

Our nervous systems are hardwired to detect and process faces rapidly and efficiently, oftentimes with very scarce details available. The pictures in the accompanying slide are often referred to as Mooney faces, after cognitive psychologist Craig Mooney, who used similar images in his research on perception.....[ More ]

Tony Blair Illusion

Vision scientist Stuart Anstis of the University of California, San Diego, created this illusion in 2005 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Thatcher illusion. Anstis reasoned that if face-neurons prefer right-side up face-features, they should also be selective for other evolutionarily stable aspects of faces.....[ More ]

Margaret Thatcher Illusion

This illusion by Peter Thompson of York University (UK) was a critical discovery in our understanding of face perception. When the illusion was discovered in 1980, scientists already knew that faces were difficult to recognize upside-down.....[ More ]

The Da Vinci Code of Perception

Mona Lisa's smile can be explained by the fact that images are blurred in the periphery of our vision, and her smile is only seen when blurred. Livingstone solved this mystery by simulating how the visual system sees Mona Lisa’ smile in the far periphery, the near periphery, and the center of our gaze (panels left to right).....[ More ]

Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa’s captivating smile is perhaps the most renowned art mystery of all time. Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School, showed that Mona Lisa’s smile appears and disappears due to different visual processes used by the brain to perceive information in the center versus the periphery of our vision.....[ More ]

Happy Pouting

Hybrid effects can be also created with realistic photos, as in this image by Oliva and Antonio Torralba at MIT. The three women look sad at close range, but happy when observed from far away. You guessed it: each face is a hybrid composed of two overlapping pictures of the same woman, one of them with high spatial frequencies (sad) and one with low spatial frequencies (happy).....[ More ]

Dr. Angry and Mr. Calm

MIT vision scientist Aude Oliva and University of Glasgow researcher Philippe Schyns created this illusion by producing hybrids of two images.  The left picture shows Dr. Angry, and the picture on the right Mr.....[ More ]

Yang’s Iris Illusion

This illusion, by vision scientists Jisien Yang and Adrian Schwaninger , was a TOP 10 finalist in the 2008 Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest . It shows that context, such as the shape of the eyelids and face, affects the apparent distance between the irises.....[ More ]

The Illusion of Sex

The Illusion of Sex, by Harvard psychologist Richard Russell, won Third Prize at the 2009 Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest . The two side-by-side faces are perceived as male (right) and female (left).....[ More ]

risk free title graphic

YES! Send me a free issue of Scientific American with no obligation to continue the subscription. If I like it, I will be billed for the one-year subscription.

cover image Subscribe Now
Share this Article:

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article