Flashed Face Distortion Effect Makes Ordinary Portraits Look Hideous

If you ever create a slideshow of portraits, you might want to avoid showing them aligned side-by-side with a gap in between. The video above shows a crazy optical illusion that researchers have dubbed the “Flashed Face Distortion Effect”. By flashing ordinary portraits aligned at the eyes, the human brain begins to compare and exaggerate the differences, causing the faces to seem hideous and ogre-like. Researcher Matthew Thompson writes,

Like many interesting scientific discoveries, this one was an accident. Sean Murphy, an undergraduate student, was working alone in the lab on a set of faces for one of his experiments. He aligned a set of faces at the eyes and started to skim through them. After a few seconds, he noticed that some of the faces began to appear highly deformed and grotesque. He looked at the especially ugly faces individually, but each of them appeared normal or even attractive.

Here’s a second video showing the same thing:

(via Matthew Thompson via HuffPo)

  • Don Clark

    If all you see is a slight distortion, you are missing the illusion. Try again. The photos themselves are not great images, but they are nowhere near as distorted as theey appear when you follow the directions and the illusion actually works.

  • Omnipresence878

    Dafuq I just see oO_o

  • Thedyslexic

    Are they suppose to be different?  The first was bad, but the second was almost the same.

  • Heather Fyffe Dunham

    “If you ever create a slideshow of portraits, you might want to avoid showing them aligned side-by-side with a gap in between.”
    The illusion is really cool.  The reporting, not so much.  As another commenter mentioned above, the side-by-side has nothing to do with it.  It also works perfectly if you only look at one face, just looking slightly to the side of it.  It’s a peripheral vision trick, not a “compare and exaggerate the differences” trick.  Whether this is a mistake from the reporting, or from the original research paper, I’m not sure.  But it should be mentioned… and, ideally, corrected.

    Otherwise it’s like that stupid paragraph that goes around every so often claiming that people only need to have the first and last letters of any word, the rest can be randomly jumbled, and we can still read it.  It’s poppycock.  All the words in that paragraph are barely jumbled at all, with mere pair inversions or syllabic clues, some shorter words even not following the ‘first and last in place’ rule.  When truly jumbled, words like “cgrbimdae” are far less easy to figure out.  It’s true that our brains can compensate for slight errors like inversions, which is indeed a really cool thing.  But the ‘only first and last letters’ notion is a total sham.  Similarly here — the peripheral vision effect is a really cool thing, but the explanation of why is a total sham.

  • CharacterArtist

    If you play and watch just one side, the faces still seem to exhibit some distortion.  However stepping through them one by one shows the large variety but no post-photo distorted images.

  • CharacterArtist

    If you play and watch just one side, the faces still seem to exhibit some distortion.  However stepping through them one by one shows the large variety but no post-photo distorted images.

  • Poops McGee

    The “compare and exaggerate the differences” bit means the differences between consecutive faces on the same side, it has nothing to do with the side-by-side faces. I have no clue, why they put faces on both sides of the cross, I think this is confusing people a lot about the “comparing differences” part.

    And the letters jumbled thing, it’s not complete poppycock. The thing is, when we read, we do not focus on each letter. We fixate, on average, on every 7-9th character. So, in short, you can jumble up the letters that are of the same size (compare ‘b’ to ‘f’, ‘e’ or ‘g’, get it?). So you’re right, “cgrbimdae” is difficult to decrypt, but “cmrdaibge” is somewhat easier. In your example, it’s the misplaced ‘g’ that’s confusing. (Your ‘b’ and ‘d’ were in the right place, coincidence or not. Try “cbgarimde”.) If the outline of the word is preserved, so the “ups” and “downs” are in the right places, it remains fairly easy to read.

  • Lars Finsen

    Me too. I guess you are supposed to look at the cross, but I have a life-long habit of ignoring anything I don’t focus on, so if I do, the faces just flash by  without making any impression on me at all. It’s hard to concentrate on the cross, though, when it’s the faces that are the thing of interest here. Mostly I find myself looking at the faces, which aren’t particularly weird at all, except for that flashlight reflection right in the middles of their eyes…

  • Andygregory1

    Weird or what!

  • Charles Baker

    the human brain is a difference
    engine: flashing like this only allows the basic differences to be
    perceived, “exaggerating them” to our consciousness. Too fast a flash
    for us to see the faces “as” somebody…what we perceive is the
    differences between the faces, leaping out: his oddly narrow chin, her
    strangely wide eye set… oddly ugly in contrast: whereas focusing on
    the individual photos let’s the perception of these well known faces to
    take over: we see them as Clooney, Pitt, etc., and other judgements take
    over from that overriding perception.

  • geeze_wiz

    Cool.. Good way to make monster faces for special effect

  • Yaros_cga

    Fu***** amazing !!! :)))

  • getalife

    too bad real human beings don’t look in between where the cross is unless instructed to do so by researchers that have nothing better to do… if you squint your eyes you can also see twins for each one of them

  • Earlier Today

    So…most people came here and found the illusion interesting. You’re suggesting they should go get a life, like you, who came here and found the illusion uninteresting.

    I’m having trouble distinguishing you from everyone else here other than you seem to think being a hypocritical idiot is the goal in life.

  • Snoopytroll

    A typical so-called “griefer”. Someone without any knowledge on the topic, but attempting to rapidly jump to conclusions, undermining research and science but when someone clarifies, then it’s “oh yeah I just didnt have the time to read on it but i DID have the time to talk rubbish about it just to appear doubtful and intelligent”.

    So much for internet commenting… our brains do tricks on us, and some people try to actually provide a POSSIBLE explanation instead of reporting “oh yeah this is proven I just saw it in my kids faces”. The guy will test this in various settings and conditions to come to a conclusion, this was only the beginning of the observation, but there are always people like you who quickly try to tell us what a study wants to say, and subsequently, science. THAT is “off-track” my friend. Try to hold your pessimistic enthusiasm not to ruin it for others (unless you couldn’t care less of your negative effect on others, which is likely the case).

    BTW, if you think staying on this page you somehow conducted “research”, then you must have NO IDEA what actual research entails.

  • Harlan

    I don’t think the photos are distorted: as soon as I look directly at one, the apparent distortion goes away. However, you’re correct: I, too, ran through the slide show once with my hand over the photos on the right, and then again with my hand over the photos on the left. In both those cases, as long as I was focused on the cross, I perceived the same distortions as I did when the photos on both sides were exposed.

    The distortion persisted even when I’d pause the slideshow, so I also don’t think the slideshow aspect has anything to do with it. Based on my test subject sample of size one, I’d say the illusion has entirely to do with the distance between two photos and the focus of the eyes on a point between them.

  • gmc13

    Agree. The conclusion that it’s about “the brain comparing the photos” is unwarranted; I get the same effect if I cover one side but continue to focus on the +, which suggests that it might be about peripheral vision more than any other thing. It’s still odd, but I have doubts about the conclusion they have jumped to.

  • gmc13

    You took some heat below for jumping to conclusions, but the brief explanation above (including the quote from the researcher) clearly emphasizes the “side by side” and “compare and exaggerate” claims, which – I agree – are unsupported. (The researcher’s abstract at doesn't directly address this. The movies at are completely different from and far less effective than the illusion above.) I, too, get essentially the same effect if I cover one side but continue to focus on the +, which suggests that it might be about peripheral vision more than it is about comparisons or alignment. It’s still odd, but I have doubts about the conclusions the note above suggests.

  • Malk A Zoid

     It could be a case of the brain comparing one face to the previous one, when you cover one side. 

  • anonymous

    If you’re staring at the cross in the center, you aren’t really looking/focusing on the pictures to either side…. it’s  a cheap, optical illusion based on the fact that you aren’t focusing

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  • Judy D

    Um, no, they aren’t “distorted,” they are just ordinary people, not supermodels. 

  • Natasha

    I watched it 6 times, both videos. I kept my eyes on the cross very stubbornly one time, then switched to a more loose gaze at the cross to allow for more view of the faces. I tried watching in small view and large view, and I tried scooting further away from the screen. Nothing, no distortion. Why can’t I see anything? My husband is sitting there giggling away but I can’t join in! =( The most I saw were some of the effects of watching something from peripheral vision, washing out of the finer details like stubble, strands of hair, wrinkles, eyelashes, etc. No distortion, though.
    Does anyone have an idea of why this doesn’t work for me? I’m really curious now!

  • Lady_Ashmire

     I don’t see it, either.  Some people might attribute it in my case to autism/prosopognosia, but it’s just as possible it only works for some people even without those kind of issues.  A lot of these things are over-inflated and depend on the power of suggestion, I think.

  • Judy D

    I have no idea why it would show up to some and not others. So I can’t imagine whether it has anything to do with (for example) autism, suggestibility, or anything else like that. Maybe just variations in peripheral vision; maybe something much more complex. But the fact that some don’t see it (when it was immediate and dramatic to me) is just another layer of interesting. I hope for more research on this. Such things may be curiosities at first, but can lead to a deeper understanding of fundamental brain functions. Quite fascinating.

  • KedR

    is there a scientific name for this phenomenon?

  • BobbyM

    sorry but it’s a badly biased study.  we’re looking at celebs for the first one so the second video is NOT the same thing. obviously we’re going to have different perceptions with recognizable faces vs. nonrecognizable.   with that said, i think the differences are very subtle and not as significant like some others are saying as well. next!

  • Anja

        no–actually, the “distortion” is the change in the alignment of peoples’ features.
        if you see someone with smaller eyes, then someone with wide-set eyes and it flashes by, you see the person with wide-set eyes as having a distorted face. but it’s not, it’s just your brain not getting used to the change. if you pause when you see a picture you think is distorted, and go back and look at it, you’ll see it’s just fine, and the person’s features just aren’t oriented the same as the features of the person before them.
        don’t worry, even if i have another 4 years, i know that the people who went to college know what they’re talking about.

  • Geoff

    Cover one of the faces, same things happens.

  • Ash Collins

    no one said it wasnt an optical illusion you fool

  • Ash Collins

    the second video is worse cos theres some ugly fuckers in there

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  • Axel

    Here’s a theory worth looking into… We are created by nature and just generally weird looking. If you give our eyes and brain the time it’ll ‘sugarcoat’ the imagery in your head. Look at people fast enough and your brain will not have the time to ‘sugarcoat’. So basically, what this dude discovered isn’t that the brains gets fooled by rapid changing pictures or putting pictures side by side, he proved our brains needs time to fool us and preferably looks at something straight…nothing new there, ony useful if you like ugly :)

  • B

    Optical illusion due to the visual field and the order of the photos. For example a large head after a small head will distort the face more so than then two similar faces as the faces change so quickly. Our brains do not have time to process the information, why we see distortion as ugly deformed and grotesques, is from the confusion going on as we interpret the information that is not clearly defined…….or have we been taught beauty only appears in certain shapes and sizes……..