I love optical illusions. They make me feel clever if I can figure them out and even when I have to peek at the answer, it’s still fun to find out how my brain was tricked. But do they serve any purpose in the real world? Can we use them to make us sharper in our everyday lives? Well if you are an athlete or just play sports for fun on the weekends then the answer may be yes. Using illusions to your advantage may help you hit the free throw, putt the ball in the hole in less strokes or even successfully knock one out of the park.

Coaches and athletes have used visual training and perception modification for years. One such method is known as ‘quiet eye.’ If you recall the scene of any cliche baseball movie you can remember when the player at bat focuses on the pitcher’s ball and all of his surroundings seem to dull. The yells from the screaming fans are put on mute, his gaze on the ball seems unbreakable and as a bead of sweat rolls down his forehead in slow motion he swings and crack! He hits the impossible pitch. Grand slam!

Quiet eye refers to the athlete’s ability to point the center of his vision at the ball, rim or goal and not let it go, ignoring all distractors around him. Previously studies have implied that when this is done, it may make you perceive the object of regard as bigger which can mean you are waiting for the pitcher to throw a gigantic baseball the size of a boulder. Ok, well not that big, however, a recent study demonstrates that visual illusions can be used to manipulate our surroundings, altering the way objects are perceived which may enhance or hinder our performance.

Witt et al. conducted a study in which they projected circles of light around a hole on the golf green. When the circles of light were bigger and fewer, the participants in the study actually had more trouble putting the ball into the hole than they did when the hole was surrounded by many more, smaller circles of light.

This setup borrows from the size illusion that the center circle (in this case, the hole on the putting green) will appear smaller if surrounded by fewer, relatively big circles and it will appear bigger if surrounded by many more, smaller circles. And the results? The participants were indeed able to putt more balls in the hole when the center circle (hole) was set up to be perceived larger.

Coincidence or the power of visual illusions and perception hard at work? I’ll let you know once I get back from the mini golf course with my can of white spray paint. I’m kidding.


Cañal-Bruland R, Pijpers J R R, Oudejans R R D, "Close, and a cigar!—Why size perception relates to performance." Perception. 2012 41(3) 354 – 356 doi:10.1068/p7255

Witt J, Linkenauger S, and Proffitt, D. Get Me Out of This Slump! Visual Illusions Improve Sports Performance. Psychological Science. 2012 April; 23(4): 397-399 doi: 10.1177/0956797611428810