The Spinning Dancer Illusion

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The illusion was created by web designer Nobuyuki Kayahara and the question is “Which direction is the dancer spinning?” That is, is the dancer is spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise?


Every person has their own way of perceiving how things happen. In this case, the spinning dancer illusion is a shadow of a female spinning dancer. Thus, if the viewer perceives that the foot on the ground is the left one, then it will appear that the dancer is turning clockwise, and vice-versa. Yet, it is likely that the same viewer will visualize the dancer whirling in both directions. The variation in direction is sometimes influenced by blinking or focusing on an object for a lengthy amount of time.

spinning dancer

Spinning Dancer – What Is It?

You may have come across the term ‘ambiguous illusion.” Well, this offers the best example of what the spinning dancer actually is. Initially, the spinning dancer can be seen as an ordinary shadow of a woman performing pirouette. Yet, to most people, the image will suddenly change her dancing direction after some time. This illusion has eluded the viewers’ sanity for many decades. Although the dancer depicts a person’s brain ability to decipher things, Nobuyuki Kayahara, warns that the illusion is not a brain test. Thus, it is just an optical fantasy.

Scientists have extensively analysed various types of illusion images including this one. This will enable them to understand more about the behaviour of the human optical system. The spinning dancer silhouette does not have depth signs. As such, your eyes may at times visualize the dancer standing on the left leg, while rotating to the right. In some cases, you will see the dancer standing on the right leg, while rotating to the left. 

In most cases, if you look intently at the image, you are likely to see the dancer turning in both directions. Necker cube (a cubic wire-frame), is perhaps the most analyzed reversible image. The image lacks depth signs, as well. Hence, the front part of the cube may, at times, appear to be on the left. In other circumstances, it moves to the back; hence, shifting of its front part.

At times, one may intently look at an image without noticing any reversal. Dr. Thomas C. Toppino at the Villanova University psychology, says that the spin is something that occurs within our visual systems. If only we could understand why and how the reversal of the dancing direction occurs, then it would be better for us. This could make us learn more with regard to how our visual systems contribute to our cognizant experience. You may gaze at the picture, and you don’t see it turn around.,spinning%20in%20a%20clockwise%20direction.

Dr. Toppino recommends looking at one part of the picture, like the foot, and most often, it will finally spin. For those who don’t see the turnaround, it could mean that there is one dominant underlying neutral composition. However, the moment you are able to visualize the spin, you will find it happening more frequently.

The Analytical Survey of the Spinning Dancer

In a bid to unveil the spinning dancer perception mystery, there is a need for an in-depth survey. According to the 2008 reports by Munger, it is unlikely for the illusion to determine whether one is left-brained or right-brained. So, what is it that affects our acuity observation? 

Most of the 1,600 online survey participants agreed that “ambiguity” is the most exciting part of the spinning dancer illusion. Thus, it may seem to be revolving both anti-clockwise and clockwise. At first, about 2/3 of participants were able to record clockwise results. The rest saw things otherwise. In another observation, most of the participants altered their initial observation. 

 Amusingly, this aptitude was influenced by the initial motion direction. If your initial answer was that the dancer was spinning anticlockwise, then you are most likely to change it. There could be some sense here, considering that most of the participants advocated for the clockwise rotation. It can be assumed that most people see things moving clockwise naturally. For this reason, it is extremely hard for the observation to change from clockwise to anti-clockwise compared to otherwise. 

How then is it possible for a person to visualize a single object moving in both directions? Since the image does not have depth signs for profundity, you can choose to view the image from two distinct viewpoints. The vacillation that occurs between two perceptual situations is now the bistable perception. 

The inherent image ambiguity portrays our visual organs with distinct versions of a similar effect. This is contrary to the single unique version we are used to in life. By making use of simple techniques like rapid blinking, head tilting or visual focus narrowing, we are able to move from one viewing angle to the next.

Different Types of Perceptual Illusions

The mind can sometimes decide to make fun of you, particularly in optical illusions. The best example of this is the popular hag and young lady illusion. Here, the young lady changes into an old woman based on your visual focus. However, perceptual illusions, work in various ways to mystify your true perception. Perceptual illusions vary significantly from optical illusions.

They are typically images with contradictory data that makes one to view them in their own way rather than their true pictures. Generally, optical illusions can work with specific visual antics. The tricks help to trigger certain beliefs in the human perception. In reality, the illusion we are referring to here is the image itself. While a perceptual illusion isn’t an optical occurrence, it is actually a cognitive experience. The fantasy happens the same way your brain treats the visual details transmitted to it.

A nice graphic that illustrates how the dancer can be observed as spinning in either direction is below. By simplying adding some lines to the original image you you can give direction to the dancer. The left image shows the dancer spinning clockwise, while the right image shows the dancer spinning counter-clockwise.

spinning dancer explained

The Silhouette Illusion

The way we observe the spinning dancer has no connection with our personalities. Whether we are right or left-brained, that is upon our creator. However, the illusion is commonly used to measure these attributes in most e-quizzes. To determine whether the dancer is spinning clockwise or anticlockwise depends on the position of the viewer. This is according to (Nikolaus F Troje, PhD.) “Our optical system, in case it can choose, tends to advocate for viewing from the top”, Dr. Troje adds. “It is a perceptual preconception. It is logical to believe that we are more focused on objects on the ground than those above us,” he asserts. 

Concerning the silhouette illusion, a shadow of a woman is visualized flipping on one foot while extending her leg. The most interesting thing about this illusion is the manner in which the woman is spinning. She can be seen spinning in both directions, which raises a lot of doubts.

Bistable Perception

While the spinning dancer may seem to have occupied our minds, there are also other illusions revolving around the same ambiguity. For instance, there is this one category known as multistable (bistable) perception, and the Necker Cube is the best example. Based on the viewer’s perception, the obvious spinning direction can change in many ways. This is typical with bistable percepts including the Necker cube. This type of illusion can be perceived at any time when observed both from below and above. The changes are impulsive and can occur randomly without any alteration within the intention or viewer stimulus. 

Yet, some viewers may find it hard using averted vision. Some people may be able to perceive a shift in direction easily by simply narrowing their visual focus to a specific area of the image. These may include the spinning shadow or foot beneath the dancer and gradually staring upwards. 

More so, you can achieve this by tilting your head to observe change in the direction. Alternatively, you can observe the shadow foot base, and make up your toes facing away from you, and be able to change the original direction. You may also try to close your eyes and imagine that the spinning dancer is moving in a certain direction. And by the time you reopen your eyes, you should be able to perceive change in direction. 

Again, you can still make up direction changes by waiting for legs of the dancer to cross the projection. You can still use your peripheral vision to block your brain’s most dominant part. By doing this, you should be able to visualize the spinning dancer moving in the opposite direction. Perhaps, the simplest technique is trying to blink faster. You should repeat this several times until you start seeing the image moving in the opposite direction. By the time you open your eyes, the new spinning direction should be normalized. It is possible to observe the fantasy in a manner that the spinning dancer has stopped flipping, but she is only turning back and forth at an angle of 180⁰. The adjusted versions of animation have been generated with an extra optical cue to allow viewers who cannot tell the direction of the spin. As a result white edges and labels have been included in the legs to enable viewers to see the foot moving in front and vice-versa. By staring at either of these, you are likely to see the original picture dancer image flipping in the same direction.

Auditory Illusions

Perceptual illusion may also be regarded as auditory. Diana Deutsch (Psychologist) unveiled various musical auditory illusions. The most popular of these illusions is the “phantom words”. You can perceive these through a sound recording featuring repeated phrases and words. 

As you pay close attention to the sound, you are likely to pick phrases that aren’t actually included. Perhaps, your mind will be trying to create some sense from the pointless sound, and filling in what is essentially meaningful of the noise.

Sensory Illusions

Sensory illusions can also be considered as perceptual. R.L Gregory, observes that perceptual illusions happen the moment our sensory organs submit a deceptive message to the brain. The phantom limbs phenomenon is a good example of this. This is where a person with an amputated limb claims to be feeling it even thought it no longer exists. There are actually many types of perceptual illusions including. They include Troxler fading, Tactile, etc. and by closely looking at them, you will find that they are far from the truth.

Facts About The Right Vs Left Brain

Can the spinning dancer illusion diagnose our inner brain functioning? Is our right or left brain dominant? In this case, if you look at the dancer and think that she is rotating clockwise, then it means that you are applying your right-brain most, and vice-versa. According to findings by Dr. Troje and his group, a VFA (view-from-above) bias is actually what makes us perceive the silhouette in a particular way. It is not through our personality or whether we are right or left-brained. 

In one study, participants were told to stare at the spinning dancer and report on what they are able to see. 24 of them said the woman was spinning anticlockwise when observed aerially, and clockwise if observed from below. Hence, the angle at which the viewer is standing is actually what brings about the perceptual variation. This hypothesis can be practical to other common illusions, as well. These include a Necker Cube, which is mostly applied in personality online interviews. The spinning dancer is neither a test for personality nor the determining factor of which part of the viewer’s brain is more dominant.

In a paper published in 2014, the brain activation is described as shifting of perception. The switching can be attributed to a section of the right side parietal. This is when MRI is used in people who can change their spinning direction at will. Research has unanimously linked this form of brain activation to the spontaneous brain changes.

What Do We Learn From the Spinning Dancer?

It can be somewhat confusing staring at the spinning dancer. While some of us may see the woman spinning in the clockwise direction, others will see her whirling in the opposite direction. Moreover, other people have the ability to determine the woman’s actual spin switch direction. 

Many study reports have confirmed that the dancer’s spinning direction is not a sign of whether one’s thinking is inclined clockwise, or anticlockwise. 

People who are considered left-brained are believed to be rational, logical, objective, sequential, and analytical and focus on sections. This group of people should be able to see the dancer spinning anticlockwise. On the other hand, right-brained people are considered intuitive, random, synthesizing, subjective, holistic, and focus on wholes. They should therefore see the dancer spinning clockwise.

In this case, if you see things in either of the two perspectives – clockwise and anticlockwise, should be able to know what kind of person you are then. Take for instance; your perception is that the dancer is flipping clockwise; thus, a Mr. Rational. On the other hand, your wife looking at the same image reports the opposite. Thus, she sees the same dancers moving counter-clockwise; hence, making her a “Mrs. Rational”. 

Going by the example above, the predictions are unlikely to be correct. For instance, you may categorize students according to their majors in university; thus: Hard sciences, economics, math/engineering/computer science, humanities, and the like. In this case, the scientists, engineers, and economists are likely to be dominantly left-brained. They should therefore look at the woman and report that she is rotating counter-clockwise. 

Those studying humanities and other non-economics sciences should see things differently as they are presumed right-brained. Below is how these numbers are likely to indicate who, in the first place, perceives the dancer spinning anti-clockwise. Thus, the higher the number of reporters, the higher the chances of them being rational:

Economists – 26.7 percent (N=60) Scientists – 31.0 percent (N=29) Mathematicians/Engineers/Computer programmers – 21.8 percent (N=55) Humanities – 42.9 percent (N=28) Social Scientists – 36.2 percent (N=47) 

Agreeably, these aren’t the huge example sizes; yet, the findings may hardly be far away from the apparent predictions of the theory. Ironically, this theory seems to have the ability to determine how logical an individual can be. You only need to alter your perception about which direction of the dancer matches the right or left-brain thinking. Or could it be a misconceived prediction by the researchers? – Thus, most people will tend to see the dancer as rotating counter-clockwise. 

Taking the above data into account, you will realize that only 30% of the participants reported a counter-clockwise spin in their initial viewpoint. Often, we might be able to come up with an accurate guess of gender by looking at the names. In this case, 36% who saw the woman spinning counter-clockwise were women, while 30% were men. In short, the confusion keeps on widening making it hard for one to decipher any meaningful conclusion in the spinning dancer prediction.

Debunking the Spinning Dancer Illusion Myth

The optical illusion of the spinning dancer has been trending on the internet for quite long. Some text articulates that if you see the female figure flipping to the right (clockwise), then you are more creative (right-brained). However, in case you see her flipping to the left (anti-clockwise), then you are more logical (left-brained). The left/right-brained belief is hooey; hence, not actually what the fantasy is meant for. The end results can only be deduced following a psychological analysis.

The demo should therefore provide evidence through the above bias viewpoint, which affects the viewers’ perception. While maintaining an anticlockwise percept the viewer assumes a viewing angle below the spinning dancer. If viewers perceive the original dancing silhouette as flipping clockwise more frequently, then there are two key likely possibilities. They could bear a bias to perceive it rotating clockwise, or also have a bias for an above viewpoint. 

To make out the difference between the two observations, it is important for scientific research to devise their own way of seeing things. This is especially when it comes to the original dancing silhouette illusion. They achieved this by recreating the spinning dancer and altering their camera elevations. This allowed for the clockwise-from-above, as well as clockwise-from-below pairings. The findings here indicate that there existed nothing like clockwise bias, but only a viewing-from-above bias. More so, the bias depended entirely on the elevation of the camera. Thus, the greater the elevation of the camera, the more frequent a viewer perceived the spinning dance from above.

The Final Thought

In real sense, the spinning dancer doesn’t offer any precise measure of a person’s brain-part dominance. It is only a visual preference sign of the viewer. According to scientific studies, our vision bears numerous preferences. For instance, we are meant to believe that lightning comes from above and all smaller objects are a distance away from us. 

Our decision to look at the dancer as whirling clockwise is influenced by our preference to observe things from above and not below. The researchers argue that a viewer’s perception is bound to shift when the GIF is observed from different angles of the camera. For instance, at 10⁰ above the horizontal, you should be able to visualize the image flipping anti-clockwise 60% of the overall time. If the demo is repeated with 10⁰ beneath the horizontal, you should be able to see the object rotating clockwise for the time’s 60%. 

To wrap it up, our brain has a tendency of staring at the ground to see if there is anything dangerous there. And that is why we see the GIF as flipping clockwise. However, the image does not relate, in any way, to the brain hemisphere and innovation. It is only a myth that should not be taken seriously.

7 thoughts on “The Spinning Dancer Illusion”

  1. Michael J Swart

    This is cool. I’ve seen this illusion with the following question “Is she spinning right or left?” which is meaningless and I never quite understood what they meant. The question “Is she spinning clockwise or counterclockwise” makes more sense (because looking down at her is implied).

  2. Technically she is standing on her right leg and spining anti-clockwise when seen from above

    Explanation: assume from the direction of the shadow that the light is on the other side of the girl than ths camera

    Now, the shadow of the raised (left) foot is coming into view when the left foot is away from us… and when it comes closer, the shadow vanishes because it goes beyond the angle of view of camera

    Otherwise if you think she is rotating in the clockwise direction when seen from top, you will mean she is standing on the left foot and shadow of the right leg is coming in picture when she is bringing her foot closer to the camera and vanishing when taken away.. this is wrong by physics principles..

    However if you assume that is not a shadow but her reflection from a mirror like floor, then clockwise direction when seen from above would be the right answer and the anticlockwie direction a wrong one 🙂

  3. Smartie McSmartypants

    Ah, but your assertions regarding shadows make 2 assumptions: a) you know which way the light is coming from and b) that her foot remains at the same height.
    If the light can come from other directions, the shadows could be cast in many different ways. Also, if her foot is moving up and down relative to the floor as she rotates (which dancers often do to) then the way the shadows fall will vary.
    If, on the other hand, it is a “mirror like floor”, both reflection patterns can be obtained if you throw out the assumption that the floor is level. If it has a slope, then either reflection pattern (clockwise or anti-clockwise) is possible.

  4. 1) The light source has to be on the other side of the shadow. So that is not an assumption but the inference. However, the positioning of the light source may be high or low but in either cases the shadow of the foot should be visible if it is visible on the other side.. the inclination of the light ray touching the foot (in the shadow-not-in-view case)angle will always be more in that case than for the other foot.
    2) If her foot was moving up and down the it would have to be really a sufficiently high raise relative to the inclination of the ray of light touching her foot. Her motion pattern doesn’t seem to suggest that. [though it could be another illusion in itself here ;)]
    3) Also if you suggest that dancers often move the foot up and down, you should also realise that a dance floor is ALWAYS level 🙂

  5. Actually it doesn’t matter what is said in the explanation since the main GIF is setup to go in both directions. If you look closely, after about 20 seconds, it switches rotation.
    So the answer to all questions would be, bull and both directions.

  6. What’s troubling is that years of cognitive tuning force continuity of either one direction or the other and make it practically impossible to switch without looking away first. I understand that it’s inefficient for the illusion to remain ambiguous, but shouldn’t we at least have the capacity to consciously switch the perceived direction? Makes me feel powerless…

  7. Actually, it’s not bull at all. I thought it was on an automatic timer the first time too, but then my mom and I watched it together. She reported seeing it going one way, where as I saw it going the opposite way. And we also saw it changing at different points in time. She would say ‘OMG there it goes!!’ and I wouldn’t see it change for several more seconds.

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