Legs, Magicians, and Vampires


When you first looked at the image above what did you see? Shiny, glossy legs? Oily legs? Legs covered in clingfilm?

Instagram user Hunter Culverhouse posted a photo of legs covered in streaks of white paint. Some people are seeing shiny legs, others simply see the streaks of paint.

Culverhouse told Insider‘s Jacob Shamsian that the illusion was created by accident.

“I had some white paint left on my brush and put random lines on my legs, turned out to be a completely confusing picture for everyone on the internet.”

Of course, the internet being the internet some people are arguing about which is the correct thing to see, the illusion or the reality. They may be missing the most interesting thing about the illusion.

The Shiny Legs/Painted Legs Illusion is an ambiguous image illusion similar to the Old Lady/Young Lady Illusion, the Rabbit/Duck Illusion, and the Necker Cube. I’m interested in these illusions because of what they tell us about the way that magicians see the world and what that can tell us about innovation.


I’m currently writing about Joseph Jastrow, one of the earliest psychologists to have investigated the psychology of magic. Jastrow used the Rabbit/Duck Illusion to make the point that perception is not just about what we see but also about what we expect to see.

For instance, with the Rabbit-Duck illusion people see the Rabbit more often around Easter time. Its possible that people would see the shiny legs more if they were somehow primed to do so in advance. For instance, if they were to look at other shiny images or read words that make them think of shininess.

Jastrow also measured how fast someone can switch between seeing the rabbit and the duck. He claimed that the faster you can switch the faster your mind works and the more creative you are. Later psychologists refer to directed attention, the ability to control our attention so that we can focus on what we choose and see what the aspect of the image that we wish to see.

This claim that the speed at which you can switch between images is a direct measure of creativity is an oversimplification, but I suggest that when you spend your life constantly switching between seeing the reality and seeing the illusion, as good magicians do, you are training yourself to appreciate both sides and this can foster a particular way of thinking and inventing.

It is supposedly impossible to see both images in an ambiguous image illusion at the same time. In the novel Blindsight by Peter Watts the vampires can see both images at the same time making them capable of a level of insight beyond that of normal humans. I don’t know if any magicians can see both images at the same time but they can become extremely practiced at moving swiftly and smoothly between reality and illusion. This talent has been a factor in their involvement in technology innovation.

Incidentally, this article suggests that the oldest known human-made illusions are similar.

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