The Artistic Science of Visual Illusion by Akiyoshi Kitaoka, Interview

The Science of Seeing: Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s Optical Illusions.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka (北岡 明佳), is one of the most notable researchers of optical illusion. He is a Professor of Psychology at the College of Letters, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. Kitaoka’s study explores the complexities of human vision, focusing on optical illusions from the area of perceptual psychology. He earned a BSc from the Department of Biology at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, in 1984, where he investigated animal psychology (rat burrowing behavior) and neuronal activity of the inferotemporal cortex in macaque monkeys (at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Neuroscience). Following his 1991 PhD from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Tsukuba, he focused in visual perception and visual illusions of geometrical shape, brightness, and color, as well as motion illusions and other visual phenomena such as Gestalt completion and Perceptual transparency, all based on a modern understanding of Gestalt Psychology. He is famous for his Rotating Snakes peripheral drift illusion. In 2006, he won the Gold Prize at the 9th L’ORÉAL Art and Science of Color competition. In 2007, the Japanese Society of Cognitive Psychology presented him with the Award for Original Studies. His artwork inspired the experimental pop band Animal Collective’s critically praised album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, which featured a leaf-covered optical illusion.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka‘s official site, Instagram, Research Gate and Amazon

self photo Akiyoshi Kitaoka
Prof. Akiyoshi Kitaoka

How did you become interested in Psychology?

I liked psychology, but my parents did not support my preference, so I graduated from the biology department. After that, I started to study psychology.

Have you always had a clear vision about your career from a young age?

No, not at all:)

Illusion is a perception or cognition that differs from the veridical property of an object. Visual illusion refers to visual misperception.” Akiyoshi Kitaoka

The autumn color swamp
The autumn color swamp. The inset appears to move. © Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Who were your biggest influences during your childhood and upbringing? Who have you looked up to as a person and as a mentor?

There was no one in particular like that.

What motivated you to specialize in visual perception and visual illusions of geometrical shape, brightness, color, in-motion illusions, and other visual phenomena?

After getting Ph.D., I got a job in neurophysiology, where they study vision in monkeys. I started to study visual illusions to develop stimuli to show monkeys. In addition, I think I was interested in visual illusions before.

Sakazuki no kaiten
Sakazuki no kaiten. Rings appear to rotate. © Akiyoshi Kitaoka

You designed some truly outstanding optical illusions; how did you start? What were the main challenges at the beginning?

The illusion works are byproducts of the study of visual illusion and vision. Studying vision first, illusion works second.

What do you enjoy most about your profession, and what are the most rewarding aspects?

I consider myself a scientist, so I have to write papers, but I have a bad habit of moving on to the next research project without writing a paper once I have a good work and my ideas are confirmed:). In this sense, I may partly be an artist.

Visual illusion has nothing to do with stress.” – Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Rollers. Rollers seem to turn effortlessly. Conversely, when viewers blink while observing this image, the rollers seem to rotate in the reverse direction. © Akiyoshi Kitaoka

You create images that are on the line and on the edge between art and science, between color and movement, between what is true and what could be but isn’t.

It is a difficult question… For me, if a beautiful piece of work can be done, the science implemented in it is close to the truth.

Can you tell us what happens in the human brain?

I know very little because I am not studying the brain at this time. In addition, there is a limit to what fMRI can tell us.

How is the perception of speed altered?

Low luminance and/or low contrast patterns are perceived with a longer latency than high luminance and high contrast ones. Here is an example.

One type of optical illusion is the tilt illusion, which causes two parallel lines to look sloping or tilted.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka optival illusion
© Akiyoshi Kitaoka, optical illusion

The disk appears to move when the image is swayed.

Is an illusion a misperception?

I do not think so.

Can you explain an example of a visual illusion in psychology?

I believe so.

Primrose's field
Primrose’s field. The checkered backdrop is made up of squares yet seems to undulate. Furthermore, this image also presents an illusion of a waving motion. © Akiyoshi Kitaoka

You created and designed a lot of optical illusions. How do you approach when making new ones?

There are clues all over the place that can trigger the study of visual illusions, and I will never be short of material until my death.

Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

No. If you chase them, they will run away. It is better to wait for things as they are. (I am not sure if it makes sense in English.)

How long does it take you to complete one of your studies and optical illusion, from concept to finish?

It depends. For example, It took ten years to finish the study of color illusion in terms of spatial color mixing.

On the other hand, it took less one year to almost finish the study of Maxwell’s spot illusion. 

What is the main purpose of your creations? Was there any feedback that surprised you? If so, can you share your thoughts?

I make them because they are fun to make.

A bulge
A bulge. The floor seems to protrude, despite the image being composed solely of squares. © Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Is there a project of yours that caught your attention the most, due to an unexpected result or that took you longer to arrive at a certain clue? If yes, can you tell us about it?

Now? I’m just about done with the study of Maxwell’s spot illusion, so I’m writing a paper and figuring out what to do next (There are clues all over the place that can trigger the study of visual illusions, and I will never be short of material until my death.)

The gut-brain axis represents an amazing link between our central nervous system and our digestive system. Can nutrition and the foods we eat influence perception?

I have no idea. By the way, there is “College of Gastronomy Management” in my university:)

How is awe and curiosity important for humans? And how do they relate to each other?

That question is too difficult for me to answer…

Photo & illustrations courtesy of Akiyoshi Kitaoka

Last Updated on May 14, 2024 by retrofuturista

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