New Optical Illusion - Scintillating Starburst
Credit: Michael Karlovich, Recursia LLC

Illusion, a sensory distortion, that was in a hipe a few years ago, making the internet go bonkers with the varied optical illusions from an infamous dress to a cat in the desert. Joining the town is a mind-boggling optical illusion, “scintillating starburst” tricks the brain to make people see shimmering rays that do not exist in reality. 

The scintillating starburst is a clever arrangement of several concentric star polygons and the images make people see rays emanating from the center of the figure. This optical illusion is thereby named “scintillating starburst”  because of its ability to evoke rays that seem to scintillate like a starburst.

This optical illusion is the creation of Michael Karlovich, a visual artist with a background in neuroscience. He made it in 2019 as a logo for his company, Recursia Studios. When Karlovich saw this optical illusion for the first time, he was intrigued by the mechanism behind the effect. So to know more and conduct a scientific study of the design, he teamed up with Pascal Wallisch, a psychologist and data scientist at New York University.

The Scintillating Starburst Stimulus

According to the authors, the visual effects of this optical illusion were superficially similar to the previous illusion on the plate. However, the Scintillating Starburst brings discoveries along with. One of them is the fleeting illusory lines that diagonally connect the intersection points of the star polygons.

The intriguing design of this particular illusion, scintillating starburst consists of concentric wreaths, each formed up of a pair of star polygons, that are made out of two heptagons bisecting one another. The arrangement of the star polygons is so that each bisecting heptagon lines up to create narrow cloverleaf points in the wreaths. 

For spectators, these intersection points in the wreaths are “bright points,” or dots. These are the thinnest part of the wreaths. These bright spots of each concentric wreath flap with each other, and create the rays between them without any change in the background color.

Karlovich believes that the mind connects the dots to produce illusory line segments. But this effect is transient, and on rapid eye movement, the rays will either disappear or get more robust depending on the outlook.

The phenomenon of witnessing something that does not exist in an illusion is not new, but this optical illusion has a functioning that no one has ever scrutinized before.

Experiments to study Illusion Effects

Karlovich and Wallish experimented with varied configurations of the illusion to understand which effect influences the illusion most. 

The first experiment was regarding the size, and observation implied that when the illusion is large enough the effect in the scale is invariant, and also the effect may break down when tried at a larger scale than they studied.

Experiments indicate that the spinning design of the illusion adds to the effects, and rays are more evident. Also, with an increase in the number of wreaths the effect intensifies.

For a better understanding of this illusion, an experiment was conducted on 100 participants. They were shown 162 variants of the Scintillating Starburst with diverse shapes, sizes, movements, complexity, and brightness. Amongst them, mixed opinions were generated. Some were unable to see the bright lines. For some, the rays were barely noticeable, and few found the beams to be subtle and weak.

Illusions help our brain evolve and reconstruct it with the world. The best part of illusions is that we know they aren’t real but still have a lot to show us. They dig our imagination and subconscious, one never knows what any illusion is bringing up for them. 


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