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Flashed Face Distortion Effect: Ugly Optical Illusion

by Lambert Varias

Sean Murphy was looking at sets of faces for one of his experiments when he observed something really freaky. Skimming fairly rapidly through pictures of two faces side-by-side, Murphy started noticing that some of the people he had pictures of had grotesque and deformed faces. But when he looked at the pictures again, this time individually, they all looked normal.

flashed face distortion effect optical illusion

Murphy, who undoubtedly possesses a strong stomach and an unbelievable resistance to nightmares, decided to look into the illusion further with the help of┬áhis colleagues Jason Tangen and Matthew Thompson. The three called it the “Flashed Face Distortion Effect”. Watch the video below and follow the instructions to make your brain creep you out.

Scary huh? Although Murphy, Tangen and Thompson have yet to fully explain the illusion, it seems as if it happens because we’re only given a short period of time to examine the pictures. For some reason our brains want to differentiate the two faces that we’re seeing, and to do so under the time constraint it ends up exaggerating the features of each face. For me it’s the slanted, evil eyes that creep me out the most.

[via Matthew Thompson’s website & Perception via Videosift]

Comments (32):

  1. what says:

    i don’t get it. what’s the point?

    • anon says:

      I don’t get it either. What were you supposed to see? It’s just a bunch of faces you can’t see because they change so fast and then after staring at it for so long it ends with no result.
      Seems like a waste of time unless there was supposed to have been a end result that they forgot to include.

      • Phil says:

        The longer you watch, the more weird the faces get. The author sees slanted evil eyes, while I see gigantic ones, so there’s probably quite a bit of personal variance in how your brain distorts the images.

        Basically the effect is all proportions, changing the relative sizes and shapes of different parts of the faces in a way that next layer up in our image processing decides is “creepy as all hell.” If you’re not seeing it by 15 seconds in, you can pretty much rest assured that you are, for some reason or other, immune to illusion.

  2. EvelizeSoto says:

    This is really cool,i wonder what they’ll find out next!!

  3. Judy says:

    I think our brain is freaked out by the comparison of faces.
    Perhaps, it’s just noticing the differences between the faces, like features.

    • kostas says:

      @EvelizeSoto I don’t think that the brain mixes the left and right face.
      To test that this is not the case, just hide with your hand the left or the right faces, and keep looking at the cross. The distortion appears again.

      So it probably has something to do with the quick change of the faces…: Smile

      • Argent Stonecutter says:

        That was the first thing I tried, and just watching one face changing is indeed enough to trigger it.

        Overclocking the visual cortex?

  4. Adam says:

    They did choose ugly faces mind you ;)

  5. Dan says:

    Does this have anything to do with the fact that the two images are aligned at the eyes?

  6. Chri says:

    I’m expecting someone to demonstrate that it’s because our visual system parses eyes and mouths in the peripheral vision much faster than the surrounding features. When you flash through faces at the right speed, your brain has time to pull in the whole face just in time for a new face to show up, and you overlay the face with the new eyes. Then the rest of the face fades in, and new eyes overlay the old ones. That’s my theory.

    • Coral says:

      I agree with you. As I did focus on the cross, they did blur into one. Then as I began to look away from the cross and rapidly switch focus on left to right face, I saw many more similarities.
      I also agree with dan about the lined up features. As we blur them into one, becasue they are the same general size and shape, they attemt to create a single figure consisting of them both.
      The fact that this man sees evil in his images, shows a lot, in a way, about the psychology. Analogous to Rorschac Photographs.

  7. Michele says:

    The effect is still present if you block out either left or right side, but continue to stare at cross. Therefore, it has nothing to do with faces presented side by side, but rather rapidly and in the periphery.

    • Oddbod says:

      It works for me if I blank out either of the faces, but the distortion is/seems greater on both faces if I stare at the cross. BTW, I don’t have stereoscopic vision – so the distortion seems to be independent of having it.

      • Oddbod says:

        I just did it by looking at each face separately, blanking out both the other face and the cross. The distortion still happened, seeming to increase as more faces flashed. So the effect seems to depend on memory, and to be cumulative, and not on relativity. (Or you’ve found some weird-looking people and there is actually no distortion – I can’t tell.)

    • E says:

      To be honest, staring the cross just enforces the effect, it can be still seen on staring other side of faces in the eyes.
      I think the key is to browse them rapidly; since these are all aligned according their eyes, the difference between facial features are extremely huge and well distinguishable, what creates that effect in the first place. Person 1 had wider face than person 2 and so on. Yet we have such short time to see apart the major differences between faces, which means, we see only what they are lacking of or do have too much, makes it look like grotesque.
      I really would like to see same sort of thing with Hollywood pretties, since movies are favoring just certain look of people.

  8. Michael says:

    I bet this does not happen if the faces are of men. It MUST be something to do with women!

    • Lexi says:

      Actually, there’s a video link on the MSN homepage right now with pictures of men’s faces as well as women’s, and they look just as creepy.

  9. Alejo says:

    Yes, but there are faces in the sequence that are particularly “ugly”

  10. Alex says:

    have u ever tried looking just past ur face in a mirror and making different expressions. same sort of thing happens, looks all distorted and weird. i do it all the time haha.

    • stu says:

      While you’re doing this also start thinking about big existential questions.. “who is this person I’m walking around as, why does he do these things..” soon you’ll likely get startled as you’re alone with a grinning stranger right in front of you.
      (Warning: may trigger a schizophrenic episode). Fun times!

  11. Leah says:

    Ask Sheldon, he’ll

  12. lyndon says:

    I’m guessing general stuff about the eyes comes into play – persistence of vision mixing with emphasis of borders and whatever happens with sudden changes and peripheral vision not being the highest resolution. I do know from graphics and mask work it doesn’t take much distortion to completely change the impression of a face.

  13. Sandy Conley says:

    Oh, now that’s just messed up! Seeing the distorted faces was odd enough, but when they focused into one 3-D face, that was even weirder. Very, very odd.

  14. Emma says:

    The faces to me look like zombies or goblins. At first I thought that it was joke that the faces were actually altered and that they used to cross in the center of the screen to distract you but when I took my eyes off the cross for a bit I realized that they were just faces …. weeeiiirrrddd

  15. UberApe says:

    That’s horrifying…!

  16. Ciro Galli says:

    The point is we’re all monsters in comparison to someone else.

  17. Jman says:

    What makes the 3D blue hand come out of the screen like that?

  18. BEN BIZARRA says:


  19. ed says:

    the two faces are not necessary for the effect to work. Hide one face and you will see the same effect in the other face. It is not comparison between faces in the same frame.. it is a comparison between the preview face and the current one. Our eyes have a small memory, the previews face remains few milisecond in our eye and then it is mixed with the new face producing a distorted image. Enjoy.

  20. Schrodingers_Cat says:

    Has anyone else noticed that pausing the images maintains the illusion? Interestingly, when paused the “illusion” can be recreated simply by focusing away from the faces…

    Pretty cool anyhow… ;-)

  21. Nick says:

    lol they look like freakin’ monsters when I look at the cross. (why does it have to be a cross? Is it because under the paradigm of what the cross represents we are all monsters? If so, that’s a good point. :)

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