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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

A Fantastic Optical Illusion: Just Another Brick in the Wall?

By Phil Plait

I love optical illusions, especially ones that really twist your brain around. I saw one recently that really had me going for a minute. And it’s not so much the illusion itself that really gets me, but my own brain’s reaction to it.

The photo is above. I saw it on a Facebook post from this week, though it’s been around since at least 2014.* It shows a brick wall, seen at a shallow angle, with somewhat large gaps between the bricks. The bricks are red, and it appears that there’s a small gray rock stuck in between them just above center.

So what’s the illusion? I couldn’t see it at all, even after a good 30 seconds of staring at it. I was starting to suspect there was no illusion, and it’s a gag to fool people, when I read the comments and realized what I was missing.


If you still haven’t seen it, then what follows below will spoil it for you. If you don’t want to know then don’t read any further until you’ve figured out the illusion!

OK, fairly warned be thee says I.

The illusion is that it’s a cigar stuck in the wall. It’s actually sticking out at a 90° angle, but the shot is taken so that the body of the cigar is aligned with a horizontal gap in the bricks. Together with the cigar being dark, it just looks like the cigar is the gap in the bricks, and the ash at the end is a rock stuck in the gap.

This should help: I blurred the bricks, so the cigar stands out more clearly:


How about that! Pretty cool.

Now here’s the part I love: Scroll back up to the original picture. When I look at it, I can’t not see the cigar! Once you’ve seen it, it cannot be unseen.

I find that fascinating. I’m pretty good with illusions, but I really couldn’t see the cigar until I got a hint. Now, no matter what I do, my brain won’t see it as anything but a cigar. I sent the image to my editor, and the exact same thing happened to her; looking over the comments on the Facebook post that seems to be the case with a lot of people.

Interesting. So why is that? I couldn’t see it at first because for me, the visual cues were so subtle. The dark cigar, the blending with the crack, and so on. Worse, my brain interpreted the ash as a small piece of rock or mortar, and stubbornly refused to budge from that notion until the visual cues were overwhelming!


But once I did see it for what it was, the visual clues were easily visible, and importantly I then knew they were there. It’s much harder to ignore what you see than notice something you don’t see. I guess that sounds almost like a tautology, but when it comes to illusions it’s quite true.

And I imagine that this must be a head-scratcher for people who see the cigar right away. I’m sure they have a very hard time understanding how easy it is for most people to miss the incredibly obvious stogie sticking right out of the wall.

A lot of people dismiss this illusion; the comments show a lot of folks basically saying, “meh.” But I think they’re missing the bigger point. Obviously, quite a few people are fooled by the photo, and it’s quite easy to be so. The lesson here is that we miss obvious things right in front of our noses all the time, and it’s not until someone points them out to us that we finally notice.

Ironically, people dismissing the illusion are doing the exact same thing. There’s a bigger point here about biases, perception, and entrenched opinions, and they’re skipping right over it. I hope that some of them read this, and see what they’ve missed.

More illusions to destroy your brain:

Tip o’ the Necker cube to Fark (note: it’s Fark, which I love, but generally has, um, NSFW and sometimes fairly juvenile comments).

*I’m having a hard time tracing this back to the person who originally took it; the reverse image search yielded a lot of Spanish-speaking websites, but none that I found actually gave credit to the photographer of it. If anyone knows who took it, please email me!

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