William Wollaston’s Gaze Illusion

The eyes in each pair of pictures don’t change at all, and yet in one picture in each pair they seem to look directly at us, whilst in the other they have rotated downwards. (featured: a Sportive Lemur; & a young man by German 16th century sculptor Michel Erhart in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

William Wollaston published this illusion nearly 200 years ago. He claimed that our brains seem set up to judge the direction in which the eyes are looking in relation to the face from the position of the pupils in relation to the whites of the eyes, but that direction of gaze depends on head orientation. You can read his original paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society online. But here’s an animation of the original illustrations:

The original drawings were done for Wollaston by the leading portrait painter of his day, Sir Thomas Lawrence.  They are now in the Royal Society in London, and there’s a movie about them you can watch on Youtube.