Neuroscientists find famous optical illusion surprisingly potent (w/ video)

June 27, 2011, University of Rochester

(Medical Xpress) -- Scientists have come up with new insight into the brain processes that cause the following optical illusion:

The yellow jacket (Rocky, the mascot of the University of Rochester) appears to be expanding. But he is not. He is staying still. We simply think he is growing because our brains have adapted to the inward motion of the background and that has become our new status quo. Similar situations arise constantly in our day-to-day lives – jump off a moving treadmill and everything around you seems to be in motion for a moment.

This age-old illusion, first documented by Aristotle, is called the Motion Aftereffect by today's scientists. Why does it happen, though? Is it because we are consciously aware that the background is moving in one direction, causing our brains to shift their frame of reference so that we can ignore this motion? Or is it an automatic, subconscious response?

Davis Glasser, a doctoral student in the University of Rochester's Department of and Cognitive Sciences thinks he has found the answer. The results of a study done by Glasser, along with his advisor, Professor Duje Tadin, and colleagues James Tsui and Christopher Pack of the Montreal Neurological Institute, will be published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

In their paper, the scientists show that humans experience the Motion Aftereffect even if the motion that they see in the background is so brief that they can't even tell whether it is heading to the right or the left.

Even when shown a video of a backdrop that is moving for only 1/40 of a second (25 milliseconds) – so short that the direction it is moving cannot be consciously distinguished – a subject's brain automatically adjusts. If the subject is then shown a stationary object, it will appear to him as though it is moving in the opposite direction of the background motion. In recordings from a motion center in the brain called cortical area MT, the researchers found neurons that, following a brief exposure to motion, respond to stationary objects as if they are actually moving. It is these neurons that the researchers think are responsible for the illusory motion of stationary objects that people see during the Motion Aftereffect.

This discovery reveals that the Motion Aftereffect illusion is not just a compelling visual oddity: It is caused by neural processes that happen essentially every time we see moving objects. The next phase of the group's study will attempt to find out whether this rapid adaptation serves a beneficial purpose – in other words, does this rapid adaptation actually improve your ability to estimate the speed and direction of relevant moving objects, such as a baseball flying toward you.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

cyberCMDR
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
I remember reading a long time ago that visual illusion occur because the brain automatically predicts where things will be in about 1/4 second, because that is how long it takes to process incoming stimuli. It has to predict in order to make things appear to happen in real time, and when the predictions fail (as in illusions) you get these weird illusion effects.
FroShow
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
I wonder if the different ways our left and right hemispheres interpret information is responsible for the effect of these illusions.
hush1
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
"The next phase of the group's study will attempt to find out whether this rapid motion adaptation serves a beneficial purpose in other words, does this rapid adaptation actually improve your ability to estimate the speed and direction of relevant moving objects, such as a baseball flying toward you." - authors

That is a fundamental statement - "a purpose of benefit to an ability."

.1)Are the illusions discussed unique only to humans?
.2)In other words, what illusions enhance what abilities?
.3)Long ago, the only form of mobility were running, walking.
.4)Can illusions ever be subject to willful suppression?
.5)Some illusions enhance 'survival' abilities. This one too?
.6)Are there 'countermeasure' motions - potentially canceling the immediately about-to-be-perceived motion?
....

I have to stop here. I have data overflow from literally thousands of questions.

To the researchers:
All the best.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.