enigma

Enigma

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Stare at the image for at least a minute. Watch as the lines jittery around the circle, as the circles move up and down the line. Even weirder, most people see an alteration in the color of the circle after a few moments of intense staring.

How It Works

Created in 1981 by artist Isia Leviant, the painting titled Engima has long stumped scientists. Nobody knew why the lines appeared to jitter, how the concentric circles could move, or what exactly it was that gave us this two-dimensional illusion its appearance of depth. Why did we feel so sucked in to the painting? Then in November 2008, neuroscientists at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, discovered most of the blame goes to the microsaccades, the tiny involuntary movements that occur naturally in the eyes at various times.

Barrow researchers gathered three subjects and placed each in a chair in front of Enigma. As subjects gazed into the psychedelic cluster of lines and circles, cameras took 500 pictures per second of their eyes. Subjects pressed a button when they noticed the lines in Enigma as stationary; they let go of the button when the lines began jittering again. What researchers found was that the painting appears to “jitter” when microsaccades increased; it appeared stationary as the microsaccades ceased. These involuntary movements in our eyes were, at least in part, giving Enigma its illusion of movement. What’s interesting is that unlike most of the other visual highs in this book, Enigma’s effects are not generated solely in the brain. It’s in the eyes, those lyin’ eyes.