The last visual illusion to make me question my reality is a blurry swirl of colors that disappear if I look at them for long enough.
The illusion appeared today on the r / woahdude Reddit. But versions of this have existed since at least 1804, when a philosopher named Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler described how an image can vanish if you look at it with enough attention. For me, the image disappears almost completely, until I realize, then refocus.
The reason why colors disappear is because the brain stops paying attention to visual scenes that do not change, which is usually not a problem, Derek Arnold, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, tells The Verge in an email. Normally, the movement in the environment and in our eyes is enough to keep a scene alive. But in this case, with a blurred image and a fixed gaze, the colors fade away.
"The illusions are part of who we are".
When our senses get used to a constant sensation, it's called neuronal adaptation, explains Susana Martínez-Conde, a professor at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and author of the book Champions of Illusion. Compare the colors that disappear with the socks: you can feel the socks on your skin when you put them on for the first time, but as the day progresses, you stop noticing them, as do the colors in this image.
One reason why I find this illusion much more uncomfortable than losing the feeling of my socks could be because it is a little more artificial. Normally, our eyes are in constant movement. "Even when we think that our eyes are perfectly still, we are still making microscopic movements of the eyes," says Martinez-Conde. So, if I look at the image in the way I would normally study an image on my screen, the colors stay. But if I look at it and intentionally try not to move my eyes, the colors vanish.
Of course, the moment it happens, the illusion is broken and I can see all the colors again. I asked Martinez-Conde if my emotion that the illusion had worked in any way made the image reappear. "It's not a product of emotion, per se," she says. Instead, I probably moved my eyes when I noticed that the image had begun to disappear. "Your natural reaction is to go immediately to check that it is still there," he says.
"Your natural reaction is to go immediately to check that it is still there."
This image is particularly indulgent with the subconscious movements and departures of our eyeballs because it is already blurry, says Stuart Anstis, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego. Still, if the illusion does not work for you, Martinez-Conde recommends closing one eye, so you just have to focus on keeping one eye steady. The other potential solution, also suggested by one of the Reddit posters, is to place a point or the cursor in the middle of the screen to fix an anchor in the look. "Our eyes tend to wander more when there's nothing to look at," says Martinez-Conde. "So if you have a point, it's easier to hold on to that."
If it still does not work, change the contrast on your monitor and allow yourself a good 45 seconds for the illusion to disappear. There is no shame in letting the illusion fool your mind, Martínez-Conde says: "The illusions are an integral part of what we are, they are literally part of our neural machinery". And in the end, he says, they are a good reminder to think critically about what is true: "It is not bad to want to question your reality a bit."