Angle alignment evokes perceived depth and illusory surfaces

Robert Shapley, Marianne Maertens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is a distinct visual process that triggers the perception of illusory surfaces and contours along the intersections of aligned, zigzag line patterns. Such illusory contours and surfaces are qualitatively different from illusory contours of the Kanizsa type. The illusory contours and surfaces in this case are not the product of occlusion and do not imply occlusion of one surface by another. Rather, the aligned angles in the patterns are combined by the visual system into the perception of a fold or a 3-D corner, as of stairs on a staircase or a wall ending on a floor. The depth impression is ambiguous and reversible like the Necker cube. Such patterns were used by American Indian artists of the Akimel O'odham (Pima) tribe in basketry, and also by modern European and American artists like Josef Albers, Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, and Frank Stella. Our research aims to find out what manipulations of the visual image affect perceived depth in such patterns in order to learn about the perceptual mechanisms. Using paired comparisons, we find that human observers perceive depth in such patterns if, and only if, lines in adjacent regions of the patterns join to form angles, and also if, and only if, the angles are aligned precisely to be consistent with a fold or 3-D corner. The amount of perceived depth is graded, depending on the steepness and the density of angles in the aligned-angle pattern. The required precision of the alignment implies that early retinotopic visual cortical areas may be involved in this perceptual behavior, but the linkage of form with perceived depth suggests involvement of higher cortical areas as well.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1471-1487
Number of pages17
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Artificial Intelligence


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