How Does This Hugging Optical Illusion Work? Here's Why No One Can Figure Out Who's Hugging Who In This Picture

It was around 5:00 in the morning when my brain nearly popped, thanks to the latest optical illusion making the rounds on the Internet: Apparently, no one can figure out how this hugging optical illusion works. It's a seemingly harmless photo captured of two people embracing; but when you look — I mean, when you really look — something's just wrong, man. The feet are on backwards, limbs are facing the wrong way... it's like something out of a horror movie, and I found myself somewhat terrified. I hadn't even had my coffee yet.

But hey, at least there is an actual explanation for it all: It's just another trick of the eye. Like the recent brick wall optical illusion that had everyone scratching their heads, the hugging illusion basically has our brain playing games with us. People are hooked on it, too: The image was posted to Imgur four days ago, where it has already collected over 2.3 million views — mainly from people who are, like me, looking at it and going, "WTF...?"

Before we delve into the science behind the hugging illusion, take a look at it for yourself and see if you can figure it out. Ready? Ready???

OK, here it is:

I know. Your mind is blown. If you're ready for the secret, here it is: It's the shorts. The shorts appear to be the two people's shorts as they hug, but it's just one person. Crazy, right?

It kind of helps to approach this illusion from a more artistic standpoint: The world of art frequently references "positive forms" and "negative space." As a simpler example, take a picture of you against a white wall. You are the positive form, and the wall behind you is negative space. Make sense? More broadly, it's simply a way that our brains perceive and separate different layers. Your eyes know with certainty that you and the wall are two separate things, thanks to your own distinct size, shape, colors, and textures.

But this illusion? Not so much. The person on the far end has her legs so perfectly lined up with the inside white parts of the guy's shorts that our eyes don't automatically understand that it's in fact one pair of shorts. There isn't a clear distinction in layers, as in the previous example.

Another way to think about it is in terms of the work that each of our eyes is doing. Because they're in slightly different positions, they each send slightly different information to our brains. That's why if you look at something with one eye, then close that eye and look at it with the other, you get subtly different views. The two views combined create one three-dimensional image, called a stereo picture.


This makes me wonder if our minds are so confused by this image — by two people mushed together with no obvious division between them — that the signals that are sent to our brains are almost identical. We have to think so hard to separate the two people and understand what's what.

I've had enough optical illusions for now, people. My brain can't handle anymore.

Images: Fotolia; Giphy