Illusory motion

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Billboards and other electronic signs use apparent motion to simulate moving text by flashing lights on and off as if the text is moving.

The term illusory motion, also known as motion illusion, is an optical illusion in which a static image appears to be moving due to the cognitive effects of interacting color contrasts and shape position.[1] Apparent motion is the most common type of illusory motion and is perceived when images are displayed in succession at a specific frame rate such as in a movie.

Induced motion[edit]

Induced movement works instead by moving the background around a fixed object.[2] Films such as Airplane! and Top Secret! use a fixed prop and move the background props to give the effect of induced motion.

Motion aftereffect[edit]

Motion aftereffect occurs when one views moving stimuli for an extended period of time and then focus on a stationary object. The object will appear to move in the opposite direction of the moving stimuli.[3]

Illusory motion in the eye[edit]

Illusory motion is perceived as movement in a number of ways. The first can manifest through the retinal image where the motion flows across the retinal mosaic. The perceived motion can also manifest by the eyes changing position. In either case, an aftereffect may occur.[4]

Illusory motion in the brain[edit]

Using an fMRI, Roger B. H. Tootel et al. were able to identify the area of the brain that is active when experiencing illusory motion. Tootel and his colleagues had participants view a set of concentric rings that appeared to move inward and outward. Participants would experience a motion aftereffect after viewing the moving stimuli for 40 seconds. Participants showed an increased activity in the MT area of the brain.[5]


Theoretical example with the Illusion of motion: It appears that the sky is falling, while the reality is that the ocean is rising.

Illusory motion can occur in different circumstances.

  • Stroboscopic images – Where a series of static images are viewed in sequence at a high enough rate that the static images appear to blend into a continuous motion. An example is a motion picture.
  • Optical art (Op art.) – Where artists use simple black and white patterns that create vivid illusions of motion, known as optical flow.

Stroboscopic images[edit]

Rotating objects can appear stationary under strobe light; also, they can appear to be counter-rotating. This second effect can occur in daylight, such as the apparent counter-rotation of wheels. Because of the illusion of counter-rotation in constant light, it is reasonable to assume that the eye views the world in a series of still images, and therefore the counter-rotation is a result of under-sampling (aliasing).[6]

This theory has however received a strong counter-argument. A simple demonstration to disprove the idea is to view an apparent counter-rotation (that of a rotating drum) in mirror image. Subjective reports reveal that the counter-rotation appears in only one of the images (either the real or mirrored image when both are viewed simultaneously).[6]


Optical art[edit]

Apparent motion in optical art has been suggested to be caused by the difference in neural signals between black and white parts of an image. While white parts may produce an "on-off" signal, the black parts produce an "off-on" signal. This means for a black part and a white part presented simultaneously, the "on" part of the signal is separated in time, possibly resulting in the stimulation of motion detectors.[citation needed]

Another explanation is that afterimages from the retina cause a moiré that is hard to identify.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

American neo-psychedelia outfit Animal Collective used an illusory motion on the cover of their award-winning 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Goldstein, E. Bruce (2010). Sensation and perception (8th ed.). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. ISBN 9780495601494.
  2. ^ Krantz, Professor John H. "Induced Motion". Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  3. ^ "Motion Aftereffect Demo (Waterfall)". Retrieved 29 Aug 2013.
  4. ^ WHITESIDE TC (April 1963). "Visual Perception of Movement". Ann R Coll Surg Engl. 33: 267–81. PMC 2311643. PMID 14075040.
  5. ^ "Letters to Nature" (PDF). Retrieved 5 April 2012.
  6. ^ a b Kline, Keith; Holcombe, Alex O.; Eagleman, David M. (October 2004). "Illusory motion reversal is caused by rivalry, not by perceptual snapshots of the visual field". Vision Research. 44 (23): 2653–2658. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2004.05.030. PMID 15358060.

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