How Optical Illusions Can Enhance Mental Agility

How do you wile away your free time?

Is checking your social media feeds the top of your list, or are you a life admin kind of person? Do you use your free time to call up your friends or spend some in-person time with your nearest and dearest? Maybe it’s your chance to catch up on your reading, do some Sudoku or quizzes (like this optical illusions quiz) or watch the latest show you’re hooked on.

However you spend your free time, you’ll probably find that it adds up to a significant chunk of your day. Calculate what that looks like over a week, month or year and it’ll likely be a lot of leisure time to account for. The good news, though, is that leisure time is immensely valuable to our wellbeing.

But, while it’s important to purposefully carve out downtime, it’s equally important to choose your leisure activities wisely. After all, wasting too many of those hours means you’ll be missing out on all the potential benefits that leisure time can bring.

The mind-friendly benefits of optical illusions

One popular leisure time activity is quizzes and trivia; from Sudoku to crosswords, and from Words With Friends to the optical illusions that circulate on social media. The latter, in particular, may have surprising benefits to your brain and help your mental agility. Read on to find out how.

  • Test yourself on optical illusions to improve your visual literacy

While literacy pertains to our ability to read and write, visual literacy is our ability to interpret visual information. When we look at an image, our brain uses visual cues to provide context to what it’s seeing. When we see a kettle pouring water into a mug, for example, we’d anticipate steam rising.

Optical illusions rely on the brain being able to make these connections, because their job is to trick your mind by giving you misleading or incomplete ‘context’. By trying to work out what’s really going on, our brains become primed for further trickery. Try enough optical illusions, work out exactly how your brain is being tricked, and your improved visual literacy may render you impervious to any illusions you later come across.

  • Get better at interpreting complex images with optical illusions

As well as messing with the context around images, some optical illusions are based on the idea of ‘ambiguous images’. That is, images that are deliberately drawn to have two – or more – possible interpretations. Take, for example, the famed ‘My Wife and My Mother-in-Law image.

There is both an old woman and a young woman in the picture. But, who do you see at first glance? There are several theories as to why you’ve seen a particular woman first, but you’ll probably find that you’re eventually able to see both.

According to researchers, because both interpretations are equally valid, the brain becomes uncertain when it sees ambiguous images. Instead of choosing one particular image to concentrate on, the brain decides to ‘flip’ between the two. You’ll probably find you can flip from one interpretation of the image to the other quite freely. Your brain’s ability to ‘flip’ is a sign of a healthy brain.

What other activities can enhance mental agility?

Of course, you can’t solely rely on optical illusions to give your leisure time a mind-friendly boost. Here are a few other options for activities that have proven to powerfully improve your mental agility:

  • Learn something new: Constant learning keeps your brain active, stretching its abilities and giving it new territory to tread. Whether you switch from reading to learning how to knit, from crosswords to learning an instrument or watching a TV show to learning a new language, try to change up the activities you do so you’re always learning something new.
  • Get some exercise: It sounds implausible, but physical exercise can do wonders for your brain. It doesn’t have to be much, either. Take a brisk walk every day, or go for a quick run in the morning to get that heart rate up.
  • Meditate: Mindfulness meditation can help boost your attention span so you remain focused for longer periods of time, clear your mind to help you make better decisions and reduce stress. Take 20 minutes a day to mediate and you may start feeling the benefits straight away.

However you choose to train your brain, consistency is key so try to figure out the method that works best for you, and stick to it. Spending a healthy chunk of your leisure time specifically on activities for your brain could reap wonderful benefits in the long run. Good luck!


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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.
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How Optical Illusions Can Enhance Mental Agility
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Anne Willis is a freelance writer who specialises in technology, social media and the digital world
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