The Thiery-Wundt and Muller-Lyer illusions

Top left is one of the simplest of all illusions.  The yellow dot is just half way up the vertical height of the triangle, but looks decidedly nearer to the apex. The effect was reported over a century ago, and has been named for its original researchers the “Thiery-Wundt illusion” by recent experimenters Ross Day and Andrew Kimm.  A consensus in recent years has been that we are hard-wired to home in on the “centre of gravity” of the triangle, the point at which three lines bisecting the three angles would meet.  The centre of gravity is a bit lower down than the half-way point of the vertical height of the triangle.  So maybe, the theory goes, we tend to take the centre of gravity as a default central reference point, and so we see the vertical centre point as if shifted a bit towards the apex.  But that can’t be the whole story, researchers Day and Kimm point out, because the effect is still there when the figure is reduced to just one oblique angle side, as centre top in the figure.  In fact, in their experiments, the effect was measured as even stronger that way. So the illusion may look simple, but more than a hundred years after its debut, we’re still basically guessing what’s going on.

Whatever is afoot, it’s probably also involved in the Mueller-Lyer illusion, in which the gap between two inward pointing arrowheads looks larger than an identical gap between two outward pointing ones.  I’ve shown that in 3D in the figure, for viewers who have the knack of so-called “cross-eyed” 3D viewing, without a viewer.  (If that’s new to you, and you want to get the knack, search on Google or try this site – though give it a miss if you have vision problems). But you can see the Mueller-Lyer effect perfectly well in 2D, and for a full discussion of the two illusions, Thiery-Wundt and Mueller-Lyer, if you have access to a research library, see Day and Kimm’s original research paper.  Or for just a bit more ….

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