illusionsNeurologyVisual Art

Sunday Morning Illusion: Magic Eye

“Magic eye” pictures are sort of reverse illusions. Where most optical illusions challenge the brain to see what is actually there, a magic eye illusion requires the viewer to force their brain to do things differently to see a hidden image.

For those that don’t know, they work by taking advantage of the nuances of stereoscopic vision. To see the three dimensional image, you must force one eye to focus on one part of the picture while the other focuses on a very similar but slightly different adjacent section. The slight differences in what the eyes are seeing are interpreted by the brain as a three dimensional image.

Don’t know how these work? Click through.

If you don’t know how to see the hidden image, there are a few tips.

1: Get really close to the image. This makes it hard for both eyes to focus on the same point. Get close enough that you see double and then move away slowly. Each eye should settle on a different part of the image but your brain should think it’s the same point.

2: Relax your eyes as if you are staring into the distance. You should see a double image. Try to focus gently on the middle of the image, bringing it into a single cohesive image again but with each eye staring at a different part of it.

3: Go wall-eyed. This is just like going cross eyed but backwards. Some people can just do this. It makes magic eyes really easy.

3: Don’t look at the edges. The fact that your eyes are actually not focused at the right distance means the sides will always appear in double and this will often break your focus.

3: Have the image fill as much of your field of vision as possible. The example above is not so good. Larger pictures are better. They give less reference for your eyes to notice and refocus on.

4: Don’t have anything moving or flashing. Anything that draws your attention will refocus your eyes on the actual depth they should be at.

5: Don’t tilt your head or the image. All magic eyes have a repeating horizontal pattern. This has to be in perfect allignment with your eyes to work.

Science, it works crotches!


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. In simple 3D images everything seems layered in a few distinct planes. When I first got glasses, and the next few times I got new glasses while my eyes were changing a lot, the real world looked like that to me. Suddenly things were clear and sharp, not only in detail, but in distance.

  2. @Scopes, I find the same thing. I think it’s because the magic eye pictures online rarely fill the entire screen so there are other areas in the same depth plane that the eyes can focus on where in pictures or books the one image usually fills the page or frame.

    I find small magic eyes in newspapers hard as well.

  3. I got it!
    Pretty cool, because I can do very well and easy on “cross eye” stereograms, but never with “parallels”.

    When I make cross-eye photo stereograms, I always use the vertical format because its easier on the eyes. Also, I put a reference point – a dot or a circle exactly in the respective center of both images, so people can focus in this particular dot and then go from there. It pretty fun, but not all people can get them.

    FWIW, I opened the link to this picture in a new tab and then Ctrl+ until it was large enough, then got pretty close to the screen and to avoid fixating I moved my eyes up and down as I got farther away slowly, until I got it.

  4. Another way to get it (and this takes practice, but it’s faster) is to look “through” the screen until the repeating pattern melds back together.

    You might be able to practice by holding up, say, a pen, and switching focus between the pen and the wall behind it. You’ll notice when you’re focused on the wall that there’s two pens (each eye’s view). Then practice making the pens divide and merge at will. With stereoscopic images, then, the trick is to look through it so you see two overlapping images, then keep separating them until they converge again due to the repeating visual pattern.

  5. @jtdrake, I hadn’t heard it explained that way before. That makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

  6. @jtradke: That’s the same way I look at them. I remember seeing one for the first time in high school (sophomore or junior year, can’t remember) and the chatter about how to “see” the image ranged all over the place. I believe the one my art teacher brought in was dinosaurs, so that was pretty sweet.

  7. I have always liked, and have been quite good at, magic eyes. I never knew you had to be lined up to see them though. I just tried it on the one here and sure enough, if i get it in focus and tilt my head it leaves, tilt it back and there it is again. coolness

  8. 6: Get a headache after 2 seconds (I’m not joking. I haven’t looked at the image in at least two minutes now and I still have a headache.)

    7: Download the image and open it in photoshop, duplicate the layers, set one of them to subtract, and offset.

    8: ????

    9: PROFIT

    My glasses correct for my cross-eyed-ness. I can’t use a computer for more than 10 seconds without my glasses. And 3D movies? It’s kinda cool when the distant mountains appear in front of the main subject, but also slightly confusing.

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