I saw the image below on facebook. At first, I thought it's a GIF animation since it doesn't appear static but it turned out to be a static JPEG image and the apparent motion is caused by the brain. So why does my brain trick me into believing that there's something moving? Does the brain have a purpose to do this optical illusion?


  • $\begingroup$ Fish responded similarly to real and illusory motion. Complex global illusory motion is not restricted to humans and can be found even in species that do not have a cortex. www.nature.com/srep/2014/140923/srep06443/full/srep06443.html $\endgroup$
    – user7796
    Mar 1, 2015 at 15:45

2 Answers 2


This is a type of illusory motion (or motion illusion) called a peripheral drift illusion:

enter image description here

Peripheral drift illusions, as their name suggests, create the illusion of motion in the periphery of the visual field. Similar images that generate illusory motion in the center of the visual field have been termed central drift illusions. Both of these types of illusions use high contrast "luminance gratings" - repeating patterns of high and low brightness - to generate illusory motion.

The cause of motion illusion in general is not well understood, but research suggests that there may be slightly different reasons for the different types of motion illusions.

The dominant explanation for peripheral drift illusions in particular is that high-contrast colours have slightly different processing latencies at the retina, and as a result, neural signals arrive at the visual cortex at slightly different times, causing the illusion of motion (eg, Faubert & Herbert, 1999; Backus & Oruç, 2005). Comparison of brain activity using fMRI between actually moving and apparently moving images shows similar activity in the visual cortex, supporting the assertion that the illusion is caused at the retina rather than at the visual cortex (Larsen et al, 2006).

Since the difference in processing latencies is effective only at image onset, maintenance of the illusion should be enhanced by small eye movements (eg, saccades, fixational eye movements, microsaccades, and blinks). This is indeed what experiments suggest (eg, Otero-Millan, Macknik, & Martinez-Conde, 2012; Kuriki et al, 2008).


Mark Changizi proposed another level of understanding this illusion based on the "Perceiving the Present" hypothesis. Here is the explanation:

Optical illusions are actually a result of our brains trying to predict the future. When light hits our retina, it takes about one-tenth of a second for our brain to translate that signal into perception. This neural delay makes our brains generate images of what it thinks the world will look like in one-tenth of a second. It's not always right.

“Your brain is slow, so you need to basically create perceptions that correct for that delay,” said Changizi, director of human cognition at 2AI Labs.

Creating an image of the very near future probably kept early humans alive because it kept them from bumping into dangerous objects or being attacked by a fast-moving predator.

To learn more about the "Perceiving the Present" hypothesis


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.