New visual illusion tricks your brain into seeing things that don't exist

The "Scintillating Starburst" will make you see shimmering rays of light -- but they're not real.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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The Scintillating Starburst illusion will cause most people to see shimmering rays of light emanating from the center.

Michael Karlovich/Recursia Studios

A few years ago, the internet was going bonkers for optical illusions, from the infamous dress to a cat in the desert. Now there's a new kind of illusion in town. It will make you see shimmering rays of light and it won't trigger any #whiteandgold versus #blueandblack battles.

The "Scintillating Starburst" is a cleverly arranged collection of star polygons created by visual artist Michael Karlovich of Recursia Studios and New York University psychology researcher Pascal Wallisch. The duo published a paper on the illusion this week in the journal i-Perception.

NYU described the starburst as "a new class of illusion" in a statement on Tuesday, saying, "Scintillating Starburst, unlike known visual illusions, evokes a number of newly discovered effects, among them that fleeting illusory lines diagonally connect the intersection points of the star polygons."    

The study looked into how viewers perceived the illusion and how contrast, line width and other factors changed the intensity of the illusory light beams. "In particular, a large number of prominent intersection points leads to stronger and more vivid rays, as there are more cues to indicate the implied lines," Wallisch said.  

Recursia created a version of the illusion with different colors behind it so you can see for yourself how lighter or darker backgrounds and various hues change your experience.

The Scintillating Starburst is a reminder of how our brains interpret imagery. Wallisch described this in a blog post as the brain "connecting the dots" to fill in missing information. "The starburst is not physically present," Wallisch reminds us.

What's so compelling about an illusion is that we know it's not real, but we see it anyway. It's magic for every day.