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Vision Res. 2008 Sep;48(20):2128-42. doi: 10.1016/j.visres.2008.05.016. Epub 2008 Jul 7.

Illusions in the spatial sense of the eye: geometrical-optical illusions and the neural representation of space.

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Division of Neurobiology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3200, USA.


Differences between the geometrical properties of simple configurations and their visual percept are called geometrical-optical illusions. They can be differentiated from illusions in the brightness or color domains, from ambiguous figures and impossible objects, from trompe l'oeil and perspective drawing with perfectly valid views, and from illusory contours. They were discovered independently by several scientists in a short time span in the 1850's. The clear distinction between object and visual space that they imply allows the question to be raised whether the transformation between the two spaces can be productively investigated in terms of differential geometry and metrical properties. Perceptual insight and psychophysical research prepares the ground for investigation of the neural representation of space but, because visual attributes are processed separately in parallel, one looks in vain for a neural map that is isomorphic with object space or even with individual forms it contains. Geometrical-optical illusions help reveal parsing rules for sensory signals by showing how conflicts are resolved when there is mismatch in the output of the processing modules for various primitives as a perceptual pattern's unitary structure is assembled. They point to a hierarchical ordering of spatial primitives: cardinal directions and explicit contours predominate over oblique orientation and implicit contours (Poggendorff illusion); rectilinearity yields to continuity (Hering illusion), point position and line length to contour orientation (Ponzo). Hence the geometrical-optical illusions show promise as analytical tools in unraveling neural processing in vision.

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