Can Cats See Optical Illusions?

Written by: Kelli Brinegar
For more than five years, Kelli Brinegar has been using her ability to write and her passion for research to tell the tale of what cats are thinking and why. She has provided care to more than 30 cats in her lifetime.Read more
| Published on October 28, 2021

Cats and humans certainly see the world in different ways, but some things definitely leave us seeing eye-to-eye. For example, kitties love a soft blanket just as much as their human minions. We can also agree with the feline kind that naps in the sunshine are the best. Cats and humans alike tend to share the belief that dinnertime is the happiest time too. And surprisingly, we’re both fascinated by optical illusions.

Yes, that’s right; cats can see optical illusions too. Or at least two of them for sure anyway. Thanks to two separate studies, we’ve learned cat vision can indeed be fooled by illusions like the “Rotating Snakes” and the Kanizsa contour illusion, which trips the ‘If I Fits, I Sits’ rule cats cling to so heartily.

Prestidigitation To the Feline Eye

When it comes to learning about cats and their reactions to the world, researchers often turn to citizen science projects in order to keep kitties in their home environments. Due to the feline’s nature to be stressed when removed from their space, this approach helps researchers obtain answers rather than just a field of data about feline freak-outs!

Gabriella Smith, an animal behavior researcher working with the Alex Foundation and lead researcher on a study that examined how cats perceive optical illusion boxes, said, “Cats are funny, cats are weird and quirky, and we love them for it. And that makes them hard to study in some ways, because we are often so reliant on training paradigms and cats aren’t very motivated to be trained.”

And when it comes to optical illusions, these projects that allow researchers and cat parents to come together have unveiled some interesting facts about how cats perceive these tricks upon the eye.

Kanizsa Contour Illusion

As cat fam, we know felines love a good box, so Smith set out to learn if cats would still be drawn to a box made of optical illusion. Using the Kanizsa contour illusion, defined by NPR as an illusion “which uses four Pac-Man shapes in an arrangement that creates the appearance of a square,” and a tape square on the floor, she proved cats would sit in what they perceived as a box. Both the illusion and the tape square tricked the vision of most feline participants. So, no box, no problem. A cat can indeed see boxes in places where only illusion exists.

The “Rotating Snakes”

Illusory boxes aren’t the only visual deceptions a cat’s eye can perceive. Using the “Rotating Snakes” illusion, a 2014 study on Cats and Illusory Motion revealed cats see the imaginary snakes moving as plainly as we do. Using citizen science to conduct the research, cat parents showed their purr children the “Rotating Snakes,” and recorded the results. The majority of felines exhibited “hunting behavior.” Simply put, those kitties tried to catch those squiggly snakes!

Akiyoshi Kitaoka, with Ritsumeikan University’s Department of Psychology and one of three authors of the study, explained, “This is taken to mean that cats see illusory motion in this image due to the propensity of cats to pursue movement.”

Want to try the “Rotating Snakes” with your cat? Show your kitty these snakes and watch what happens. If you want a little more visual fun, put a tape square on the floor. You’ll witness for yourself how cats can see optical illusions!

Feature Image: rasmusab/YouTube@Explanimals/Twitter

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