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)

  • Ena Jenkins

    hahaaaaaaa… WOW that’s pretty awesome.

  • Markus WET

    OMG I’m giggling like a 6 y.o. girl xD

  • Melissa Coetzee

    Woah ! That second one is crazy !

  • Nelson García


  • Spider- Man

    i love the ones that look like Frankenstien’s monster LOL

  • Watcher

    osh WFK?!?!?! are they really all human beings? lol

  • pethr

    this will give me nightmares

  • Rohit kothari

    haahah thats so funny man but one thing its giving a big example for wanna be photographer that dont make mistake like this

  • Logan Miller

    That’s gonna haunt my dreams tonight…

  • Hmandy12

    It is a bag of arse …. cover one set totally with your hand and watch only one side. There are clearly distorted pics in there. 

  • Nicki

    The distortions are very slight, but by not focusing directly at each photo, they’re exaggerated. They’re definitely very slightly distorted, though.

  • 2TheMaxx

    You have just previewed the 4th dimension in a parallel universe.

  • Brandon

    I don’t think they are distorted, most are just unflattering, and some show a bit of plastic surgery.

  • bob cooley

    I don’t think so – these are actually just photos of these folks without the benefit of a lot of Photoshop, and in some cases they just aren’t very flattering photos.

    The cropping of the images adds a bit of geometric abstraction.  But they don’t appear to be distorted.

  • Trausti Hraunfjörð

    Craziest thing is that these so-called “researchers” have not figured out that there is NO need for a second face on the side.  Research that yourself by starting the video, cover one of the faces completely with a text editor window(empty), letting it come all the way towards the border of the remaining picture.  Now stare at the very edge of the text editor frame that is next to the picture… and you have the very same effect.  Now that you have “researched” and confirmed this to work the exact same way, you might think: “Oh, but it’s because the faces are shifting from one to another… ”  … to test that, and find out that it is NOT the case, just stop the video, put the text editor over one face and make your stare. It will show you a hideous face once again.  So the claimed scientific blah, blueh… is completely off track.  

    You get the same effect in real life… I just saw my lovely little kids turn into monsters by looking a little to the side of their faces.

    So much for scientific discoveries…. our brains do tricks on us, and that is all there is to it.

  • Ann

    I can’t do it. I can’t focus on the cross. :(

  • His Shadow

    No, there isn’t. Don’t be that dolt, the one that refuses to be told anything they don’t understand.

  • albert

    You’re spot on. Is it because our peripheral vision isn’t capable of discerning fine details that it grosses them out and makes them appear grotesque, you think?

  • Dave Polak

    I don’t get it. All I see is normal faces.

  • Jonathan Parker

    Coolest optical illusion Ive ever seen

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    THANK YOU! Covering one face made it even more awesome! What’s interesting about this is the philosophical aspect, because these awful faces we see in the peripheral are real perceptions of us, in the sense that all we see are just interpretations of our brains and the things we see in our peripheral are interpretations as well, just not as well. So one could argue that the peripheral sight is just as true as the non-peripheral and that we indeed are that awful looking!

  • Irene Jones

    So that’s how political cartoonist must see the world…. I just learned something.

  • Stephan Zielinski

    Read the letter itself.  The researchers are not, in fact, claiming there has to be two sets of faces, and they first noticed the effect looking directly at a single set of faces.  (As opposed to using only their peripheral vision.)  See the PDF at Flashed face distortion effect: Grotesque faces from relative spaces, which (A) goes into considerably more detail about what precisely they found, and (B) hasn’t been mangled by science journalists inadvertently oversimplifying things.

  • Retrodav

    This illusion reminds me of those celebrity caricatures that you see in magazines like this one

  • rtfe

    It is bad to focus on the cross.

  • Charles Carico

    Dont do this at night.

  • Harv

    That’s pretty freaky.

  • JohnSmith

    This is nonsense, have a look at the faces individually. Cover up the adjacent face and you can clearly see the photos of the faces have been manipulated and distortions added, either through camera angle or digital manipulation.

  • Trausti Hraunfjörð

    Thanks, I’ll take your words for it.  My “research” was quite limited, only conducted by staying on this page :)  Had no idea or intent to to look beyond what was on display here (due to limited time on my end, and I tend to get lost in things I web-chase).

    Again thanks!

  • Matthew B Thompson

    Thanks Stephan!

  • Simon Brown

    I’m utterly unconvinced by this demonstration. I really would like to see the original image files, some of those faces, when paused and viewed individually, look odd.

    I’m a Master Practitioner of NLP, a major factor in our training is learning to observe what is actually there, not what we have been primed to see. Another thing I have to tell you, that introduction reads like a beginner’s attempt at a trance. From their first couple of days of training.

  • CaptainContext

    no he’s right – just cover one side like he says. There are clearly distorted pics in there. You’re being tricked.

  • Audun Bakke Andersen

    Actually most, if not all are distorted in some way or another. Not much, but still distorted

  • LinZi

    I don’t really see anything weird about their faces at all.. it just looks like flashes of people’s faces lined up at the eyes to me..

  • Player_16

    Aww man!! Now I see how character illustrators see people.

  • Mark

    I did some experiments with the size of the video. I watched it on my HD laptop screen, on my lap. That appears to be the most effective size. Moving the laptop twice as far away, or putting the playback in full-screen mode, seems to cancel some of the effect. And it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the alignment of the eyes or the fact there are 2 faces. It is just the space between the models face and the cross which is critical. Even if you pause the video, the grotesque distortion stays there until you move your eyes straight to the model. And once you do that, the distortion goes away and you can’t see it again (until you go to the next model image).

  • Tezzeret

    There are some amazingly stupid comments on here. Our brains did not evolve to process faces in this manner, so it is only natural that the information becomes translated into these sloppy renderings. It’s quite amazing that we can “see faces” at all, look into an area called the fusiform gyrus.
    There is another phenomena that I am sure you have all noticed, ever see a face in a cloud or made up of fruit? You can thank your fusiform gyrus.

  • Cliffy

    And still you felt the need to ridicule the people behind the study. 

  • Brotlos

    Looks like “too-much-Botox” to me in most of the cases

  • His Shadow

    No, you are clearly out of your mind. Variations in contrast are not “distorted”.

  • Phroilan

    No distortions people, c’mon! There are weird looking people out there. Pull your hair back and check yourself out in a mirror, front view, up close. Frightening. Then have someone take a picture and in Photoshop horizontally flip it…even weirder!

  • Ian

    Are you sure this isn’t just happening because of the transformation from one face to another aligned at the eyes? Not because its being compared side by side…

  • Otter_be_here

    Facial recognition has a lot to do with the length of the nose and the space between the eyes, which in fact form a cross.  Stare at the center of that cross, with a bunch of perfectly aligned faces flashing real fast, and you will no doubt see some distortion.  Not to mention, many people have eye sockets which are not perfectly aligned, which could exaggerate the effect.

  • Irtelc

    Yes- we have evolved to be able to tell the difference between the slight variations of the human face. This is known due to this part if the brain having become damaged due to injury (organic or otherwise) and various people losing the ability to even tell the difference between family members. My first thought was that this optical illusion is connected to this in some way.

  • Thecamerahunter

    O Something the researchers may find interesting is that I do not have binocular vision. I only use my right eye and this effect still works. Very odd results appear when looking down the center. So odd in fact that I have to look at the images individually to make sure they are normal.

  • Calumet Photographic

    It feels like watching an instant Francis Bacon painting.

  • Robertday154

    Isn’t this just part of the same process in the brain that makes admirers of new-borns say “He’s got his father’s nose”? Or that makes a fleeting glimpse of a person seem momentarily to us like someone else? I once turned suddenly to look at my sister standing in her kitchen and I could have sworn it was our late mother. The human brain and its “image engine” are easily fooled.

  • Don Clark

    Not true. They may not be the best images of these people, but the distortions you see that make them look completely hideous are not in the photos, covering one side or not. You only see them that distorted when you stare at the cross and the illusion works. Don’t be the kid who doesn’t get the joke so he tries to ruin it for everyone.

  • Don Clark

    Nope. They are certainly not the best photos if the people, but the distortions that this illusion creates are not in the photos. If all you see is a slight distortion, you’re doing it wrong.

  • Don Clark

    Which images do you think are distorted? They are all kind of bad images, but none of them have distortions like the illusion creates. You must be doing it wrong if you think the same distortions are still there when you look at only one image.