These splotches hide an image if you think about it hard enough

What do you see?

We know you are bored at home right now—we are too. Here are some puzzles and brainteasers to challenge your family and friends with, either in person or over video chat.

There’s an image hidden in these black-and-white blotches. Once you spot the figure, that’s it: The shape will emerge, and then, try as you might, you’ll never unsee it. Consider yourself warned. It’s a Dalmatian, bending down to drink water. See it now? That’s because the images we “see” are really our mind’s own creations.

In the early 1900s, the German psychologists behind Gestalt theory first introduced the Dalmatian scene with this reasoning: Humans aren’t passive recipients of incoming images, rather we impose a structure on what we see.

Today, we’re still piecing together how our brains do this, but here’s our best guess: Light lands on our eyes’ retinal cells, which send a signal to the visual cortex, the area of the brain that heads up sight. Simultaneously, other ­areas within our brain’s cortex, which assemble higher-level thinking, send predictions down to the visual cortex of what the picture might be. So, any notion that a Dalmatian is there primes the cortex to identify an ambiguous white stripe as a leg, the black mark above and to the left as an ear, and so on.

We do this instantly, but even the sharpest image-recognition software can’t. Until we fully grasp the neural processes at play, says Dartmouth College visual scientist Howard C. Hughes, we’ll still be sharper than the bots.


This story appeared in the Summer 2018 Life/Death issue of Popular Science.

Claire Maldarelli

Claire Maldarelliis the Science Editor at Popular Science. She has a particular interest in brain science, the microbiome, and human physiology. In addition to Popular Science, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Scholastic’s Science World and Super Science magazines, among others. She has a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s in science journalism from New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Contact the author here.