Frisén’s Lazy Shadow

from Michael’s   Visual Phenomena & Optical Illusions


What to do & see

This phenomenon is best perceived under somewhat dim lighting conditions.

Apparent alignment depends on rotation speed. It also depends on the luminance difference, the darker the outer “shadow”, the stronger the effect.You can try out various speeds and various shapes. If you see a counter-rotation when stopping the shapes: that’s the motion after-effect. It is also possible to choose a darker blue using the colour pickers at the left. With a darker blue, the effect is nearly double in size, though the shape is less discernible.


The main mechanism here is that processing speed within our visual system depends on luminance, “the brighter the faster”. A rough rule of thumb is: 10× brighter → 10 ms faster.The mechanism is located within the photoreceptors in the retina. One might think that the optional bright-background effect argues against this, because the dark shape remains dark – but there its edges are defined by the bright background. The present demonstration could be seen as a rotatory version of the “Hess effect”, where the more intensely illuminated of a pair of laterally-moving targets appears displaced ahead of the other. However, possibly due to pursuit eye movements, this is more difficult to demonstrate. There is also a close relation to the Pulfrich phenomenon, which, however, can be seen in binocular vision only.

This display was suggested to me by Lars Frisén in August 2006 and I heartily thank him for his ideas and graciously allowing the result to be published here; he also invented the name “Lazy Shadow”. He now has set up his own page on this topic.


Alpern M (1954) The relation of visual latency to intensity. AMA Arch of Phth 51:369–374

Bach M, Waltenspiel S, Röver J (1984) Comparison of pattern-ERG and VEP latency depending on stimulus luminance. Perception 13 [A27]

Bach M, Waltenspiel S, Bühler B, Röver J (1985) Sehbahndiagnostik mit simultaner Registrierung der retinalen und kortikalen Musterpotentiale. Fortschr Ophthalmol 82:398–401

Hess CV (1904) Untersuchungen über den Erregungsvorgan im Sehorgan der Katze bei kurz- und bei länger dauernder Reizung. Pflügers Arch ges Physiolo 101:226–262

Mansfield RJW, Daugman JG (1978) Retinal mechanisms of visual latency. Vision Res 18:1247–1260

Wilson JA, Anstis SM (1969) Visual delay as a function of luminance. Amer J Psychol 83:350–358

Pulfrich effect home page