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15 must-see optical illusions

Optical illusions have been around for centuries, with some of the earliest designs spanning back to the fifth century BC. Since they first appeared, they have gained significant popularity, and now we see new mind-bogglers taking over the internet nearly every week.

If you love having your brain fried by incredible illusions, then you've come to the right place, as we have rounded up a collection of the best optical illusions out there. We've got a range of designs, new and old, for you to enjoy. And if you finish up here and are still craving some mind-bending action, then check out the list of our favourite trompe l'oeil illusions. Or if you'd like to have a go at creating your own illusion, then make sure you have a look at our guide on how to download Photoshop.

01. The three-headed deer

Deer optical illusion

A three-headed deer is a thing of nightmares (Image credit: Renatas Jakaitis )

This accidental optical illusion left the internet baffled when a photographer posted a photo of what looked like a three-headed deer. Despite what it looks like, there are only three separate deer in the photo. We love that this illusion was a total accident, and it shows that you don't need the newest photo editing software to produce some truly baffling images. 

02. How many horses are there?

The horse optical illusion on a gradient background

How many horses can you see? (Image credit: Bev Doolitte/National Institute of Enviromental Health Sciences)

This equine-themed illusion has been confusing viewers since the 1970s. The design begs the question, how many horses are in the painting? And despite how many times we counted the horses, we never got the answer that the artist, Bev Doolittle, revealed was correct. 

03. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

Two men posing in 16th century surroundings

This might be one of the earliest optical illusions  (Image credit: National Gallery / Public domain)

You've probably seen this famous painting of The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, but have you ever noticed the skull on the bottom of the image? This 16th Century illusion features one of the earliest optical illusions out there. Just look at the painting from the right-hand side and you should see a whole skull on the floor in front of the two gentlemen – spooky, right?

04. The Phantom Queen

A screenshot from The Phantom Queen illusion video on YouTube

The winner of the 2021 Illusion of the Year contest deserved its place (Image credit: Best Illusion of the Year Contest)

This mind-boggling video features the 2021 winner of the Illusion of the Year contest. The Phantom Queen optical illusion sees the reflection of an invisible queen piece on a chessboard. The video pans round to reveal a clever 3D shape that aligns with the pattern of the chessboard. Hidden under that shape is the Queen, making it look as though she wasn't even on the board. 

05. This illusion predicts your love life

An optical illusion of a man and a woman

What do you see first? (Image credit: Gentside)

Depending on what you first see in this image, apparently, this optical illusion can predict your love life. This soothsaying illusion can supposedly give you some insight into your romantic endeavours based on whether you see a man or woman first. We wouldn't take this illusion as gospel, but it's an interesting take on optical illusions. 

06. What's hiding amongst the stripes?

Optical illusions: Striped

Shake your head and watch a furry friend appear (Image credit: Dr Michelle Dickinson via Twitter)

Next up on our list of optical illusions is this eye-crossing striped affair, shared by Dr Michelle Dickinson on Twitter. It springs into life when you shake your head vigorously from side to side (carefully!). An image will start to appear amongst the lines. Which type of furry friend do you see appearing?

07. Spinning discs

Optical illusions: Spinning discs

Your head might be spinning (Image credit: Cliver Gifford via The Guardian)

This is an illusion, featured in Clive Gifford's book Eye Benders, and inspired by experimental psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. No, it's not a GIF but a still image – though the wheels appear to turn in front of your eyes. It happens because of how your eyes process an image, scanning it repeatedly while autofocusing and adjusting. If it feels too much, try concentrating on a single wheel to make it all stop.

08. Impossible Trident

Optical illusions: Impossible trident

How many prongs do you see? (Image credit: Illusions Index)

One of the most well-known illusions (but one of the best) is the Impossible Trident. It clearly has three prongs. Except, well, it doesn't. In fact, the central prong is formed from the empty space between the prisms. When you follow the prongs up to the top, you can see it only has two openings, with the top surface of the furthest prism transforming into the third prong and the surface becoming the empty space.

09. True Cyan

@kbacon

You’ve probably never seen this color before... #womeninstem #voiceacting #science

♬ Blade Runner 2049 - Synthwave Goose

Causing a storm on social media, this illusion shows you a true cyan colour – something that up until now your computer screen has been unable to do. Cyan is the perfect combination of red, green and blue and your monitor usually has to settle for a close approximation of the colour. But this illusion, which requires you to focus on the inside of a red circle, will show you the real thing – when you close your eyes afterwards, that is. Viewed by over 21 million people so far, it's sure captured people's attention. Read more about it here.

10. Floating ship

Optical illusions: Floating ship optical illusion

This one is out in the wild (Image credit: David Morris)

Most optical illusions seem to be handmade or digital creations, but every now and again an example appears out in the wild – and these incredible 'floating' ships might just be the most mind-boggling phenomenon we've seen. A walker was stunned to see a boat hovering above the water in Cornwall, and a photo of his discovery quickly went viral. 

11. Union Flag

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Observing the world in all its colourful glory is something many of us take for granted. But how different do things look if you're colour blind? In a video created by the BBC back in 1985, an optical illusion featuring the Union flag was created to educate people on how colour blindness works. 

Viewers are asked to stare at the dot for 20 seconds, after which the screen goes white and, due to a "three receptor phenomena" the flag will appear in its original red, white and blue colours. This, as the narrator explains, is due to said phenomena forcing other colour receptors to take over when some "start to tire".  Despite the illusion first being shown over 35 years old, it's still completely mind-boggling. 

12. Rotating boxes

These boxes are clearly spinning on the spot, right? Nope! They are, in fact, totally still, with the illusion caused by the flashing background. Focusing on one of the cube's corners stops the spin so you can prove to yourself what is actually happening. Shared by Twitter user @jagarikin, you can find out more about this illusion here.

13. Duck or rabbit?

Optical illusions: Duck Rabbit

It's a duck. No, it's a rabbit.  (Image credit: Illusion Index)

Is it a duck? Is it a rabbit? Actually, it's both. This ambiguous image was originally published anonymously, but the first record of this confusing animal(s) is from way back in 1900 when it was noted by Joseph Jastrow. It's one of the most famous optical illusions around but if you're struggling to see it, imagine the duck's beak is also the rabbit's ears and you should succeed. Still sending you quackers? Turn your head to the left to make the rabbit appear.

14. World's oldest optical illusion?

Optical illusions: oldest illusion

This could be the oldest illusion  (Image credit: Duncan Caldwell)

This could be the original duck-rabbit-style illusion, created in prehistoric times and found in a cave in France in 2010. Comprised of two overlapping images carved out of rock, which look like a mammoth and bison, depending on which way you look at it. While it may well be the first optical illusion in practice, there's no telling if it was actually meant that way or if it was just an exercise in overlapping characteristics. But, since both art and magic are in the eye of the beholder, we think if it acts like an illusion, we're happy to call it one.

15. Super Illusion Brothers

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This illusion is one of the newest optical illusions we've encountered, and also one of the most mesmerising. Dubbed 'Super Illusion Brothers', it depicts a bunch of figures walking up the steps and jumping off the top. Doesn't it? You won't be surprised to hear (this is an optical illusion post, after all) that, no it doesn't. Those little green people are actually completely static. This is a ‘bright phi' illusion, which plays with our brain's perception of bright objects. 

According to Stanford University (as spotted by 7News), this is a "basic effect" whereby "If a bright point appears at one position, and then reappears at a position shifted to the right, we tend to see a single object moving left to right." Good to know.

If you've been loving these optical illusions and would like to have a go at creating your own, then make sure you check out our roundup of the best Adobe Creative Cloud discounts, or just scroll down to check out some of the latest deals. 

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Georgia Coggan is a regular freelance contributor for Creative Bloq, who has also worked on T3 and Top Ten Reviews. With a particular interest in branding and retro design, Georgia writes about everything from logo design to creative technology, enjoys hunting down genuinely good deals and has even used her knowledge as an ex-teacher to create buying guides on products including children's books and bookcases. Tying these design interests together is an obsession with London Underground posters from the last century.

With contributions from