Most people in the western world can think of at least one example of a deliberate optical illusion they’ve seen at some point in their lives. They have been a part of our culture for quite a long time. But how long? Plenty of the illusions we know and love (and have in this building) are based on ones created between about 50 and 150 years ago but did you know that the study and use of optical illusions actually dates back to Ancient Greece? Because, of course, there is more to all this than meets the eye, here is a very brief history of optical illusions.

The Greek Obsession with Perfection

Those legendary architects, the Greeks, were so obsessed with making their buildings and the temples to their gods look perfect, they accidentally discovered the art of the deliberate optical illusion. When creating buildings with rows of tall pillars, they found that no matter how perfectly straight and regular they designed them, they often just didn’t look right when they were built. They discovered that to make large tall structures look regular, sometimes you have to build them irregular. Archaeologists discovered that the ‘straight’ lines of the stepped pedestal the Parthenon stands on is actually slightly domed to make it appear straight. Those legendary pillars are also not only not quite straight – they lean slightly inwards – they are also not one size. They are chubbier in the middle than at the ends to counter the natural optical effect that columns appear slimmer in the middle.

These discoveries that things do not appear as they are and it is possible to ‘trick the eye’ in this way lead to philosophers such as Protagoras, Epicharmus, Aristotle and Plato theorising on the nature of optical illusions and pondering whether it was our brains or our eyes which were responsible for the difference between perception and reality in these cases.

17th Century Perspectives

Italian artists of the 1600s were very keen on creating interesting effects with their art. False perspectives and the illusion of three dimensions were all the rage. Some particularly interesting ones include The Triumph of Divine Providence by Palazzo Barberini which creates such a feeling of depth that it creates a feeling of vertigo looking at it. Another example is the Galleria Spada perspective corridor which appears much longer than it actually is and the statue at the end appears to be life size but is, in fact, less than a metre tall. A very clever one is the Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola which appears to have a domed ceiling but actually doesn’t. Its flat ceiling has simply been painted to look like a dome.

Victorian Era Cognition

It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that people really started to study optical illusions, however. This is the era of the Muller-Lyer illusion which started people thinking about the idea of cognitive illusions. The Greeks couldn’t decide if the brain or the eye was the cause of optical illusion effects but 19th century academics began to understand that there was an issue caused when the eye perceived something that the brain didn’t expect. Illusions like the ‘Café Wall Illusion’ started to appear when people realised you could use this discrepancy to create interesting effects. Once people realised the fun they could have tricking the eye/brain in this way, the use of optical illusions really took off.

Modern Perceptions

That popularity exploded in the 20th century when optical illusions were adopted into art and popular culture. Everyone has seen the ‘My Wife and My Mother in Law’ drawing by cartoonist W.E. Hill which shows a young woman and an older woman simultaneously even though it came out back in 1915. ‘Op Art’ became a thing in the 1960s where artists incorporated optical illusion techniques into their art. This is where much of that black and white patterning came from in the 60s and those kinds of illusions that make flat pictures look 3D or make still pictures look like they’re moving are still popular today.

We can’t claim to have built a Parthenon in the North Laine but we did have to create an Ames room by eye and that wasn’t easy so we have huge respect for these early pioneers of optical illusions. If you would like to plan a visit to Paradox Place or ask us about any of our illusions, please get in touch on 01273 964000 or email info@paradoxplace.co.uk.