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In this lesson, we will explore the different types of optical illusions and discuss how they play tricks on our perception. Then you can test your knowledge with a fun quiz.

What is an Optical Illusion?

When you look at this image, what do you see? Do you see two silhouette profiles or a white vase?

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An optical illusion of two reversible figures and a vase.

Can you see both?


This picture is a great example of an optical illusion. An optical illusion is a visual stimuli that is perceived by the eyes and then comprehended by the brain in a way that is different from reality. Why does this happen? Since the brain has a need to define reality based on simple, familiar objects it creates a ‘whole’ image from individual elements. The image is neither a vase nor two silhouettes but merely a design of black and white shapes. However, since the brain wants to comprehend this image based on other images it has seen before, it creates its own version of that image; in this particular situation, it generates either faces or a vase.

Types of Optical Illusions

There are currently three types of optical illusions: literal illusions, cognitive illusions, and physiological illusions.

Each of these illusions trick our brain into misunderstanding what we see in various ways.A cognitive illusion happens when the brain perceives an object based on prior knowledge or assumptions. The vase/face imagine is a good example of a cognitive illusion. The brain was looking for something familiar, which ended up being either two faces or a vase.

Let’s look at another example. The famous illusion titled My Wife and My Mother-in-Law is a great example of a cognitive illusion. Depending on how your brain analyzes this picture you may see a young woman looking away or an old lady with a rather large nose. Some people can only see one of the images while others have the ability to switch between both of them.

Cognitive Illusion Image – My Wife ; My Mother-in-Law. Do you see a young woman or an old lady?
Literal Illusion Image – All is Vanity. Are you able to see all of the collective objects that come together to create the image of the skull?
Physiological Illusion – Psychedelic Pattern. When staring at this picture some people get the sense that the colors are moving or that they are looking into a tunnel. What do you see?
If other theories of color vision explain
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