Escape Your Brain: How Optical Illusions Work

We can all agree that the clues and riddles that lead to escape room victory make you do some serious brain gymnastics. Why? Because by twisting your expectations, they force acrobatic thinking.

This is basically the same principle that optical illusions work on—except they are all the more frustrating, because we can never exactly solve them.

Optical Illusions Work

When we take in data about the world—through our eyes, for example—we make assumptions about that world. But these assumptions are not always true to reality.

Take the Ponzo illusion: It looks like the horizontal lines are different lengths when, in fact, they are the exact same. The angled lines trick our brains into using our depth perception. And, just like that, four simple lines will outsmart us, every time.

This is why optical illusions can be incredibly frustrating: they’re so simple, and yet they trick our brains so effectively.  

We all know the illusion above: The squares with the two dots are the exact same shade. But none of us actually sees it that way, do we?
The only way for our minds to process all the information around us is to take shortcuts. These help us to make quick work of what we’re sensing—but it can get us in to trouble. This is the same principle both pickpockets use to distract you while they steal the watch right off your wrist. They misdirect your attention by messing with our sensory shortcuts.

Perceptual shortcuts like the ones that make us susceptible to optical illusions and pickpockets are the same ones that can thwart us when we attempt to solve riddles. That is, we fall into familiar patterns and come to the same old conclusions. Usually this is great—but not when a mystery is afoot!

Slowing down, and seeing what’s really in front of our faces, is the only way we can work against this natural shortcoming.

It’s like Sherlock says: “You do see, you just don’t observe!” The trick is to try and do both at once.