Hybrid Images: Detail, Memory, and Our Crazy Brain

If you need a new idea to freak out your friends, pass this image around on Facebook:

Einstein Monroe Hybrid Image Optical Illusion

Tell your friends that they aren’t looking at the great Albert Einstein, but, rather, they are looking at Marilyn Monroe. After they tell you you’re nuts, have them turn around and walk away from their computers, say about 10 feet. Then have them turn back around and look at their monitors. Where did ol’ Albert go? Hello Marilyn! (Now you don’t look so crazy, do you?)

What is happening here is a somewhat freaky phenomenon that occurs in our brain: visuospatial resonance (the effect of hybrid images). At close distances, we pay attention to detail. We see outlines and hard contrasts and we make sense of the image. However, as Aude Oliva (the original scientist/artist who created the Einstein/Monroe image) discovered, as we move away from an image, our brains rely on our memories to make sense of information. As images get blurred, in other words, we pay less attention to detail to more to general shapes with which we are familiar.

In this Einstein/Monroe hybrid image, two pictures were spliced together. On top, Albert Einstein has dark lines and contrast so that we can make out his famous mug. Behind his image, a very blurred picture of Marilyn Monroe sits staring into our eyes. As we back away from Einstein, Monroe seems to magically appear. Why? Our brains lose track of the details and make sense of the blurred, ambiguous imagery.

Even though visuospatial resonance was technically discovered in the 1990s, its possible that the great Leonardo DaVinci actually understood this phenomenon. His famous Mona Lisa creates the same effect. From a distance, the woman appears to be smiling. But don’t be fooled. That smile is coming from blurred shadows that make us want to think she is smiling. Up close, however, if you stare at the lips, you’ll notice that the details indicate that she isn’t smiling at all. An optical illusion (a hybrid image) at its finest.

Mona Lisa Hybrid Image

Of course, the troublesome nature of this whole concept is that, in reality, we don’t actually always see what we think we are seeing. If an image is far away or slightly blurred, our crazy brains will work hard to make sense out of the image based on our memories. In other words, what we saw in the past may very well affect what we see in the present. Kind of eerie as you begin looking around you, isn’t it?