visual reorientation illusion

Visual Reorientation Illusion: When the world looks the same but feels different

A man reports his whole world frequently flips by 90 degrees. He is not alone. Researchers at the Donders institute aim to investigate this curious phenomenon.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Do you sometimes feel like your entire world has suddenly turned about 90 or 180 degrees? Or maybe that your familiar environment suddenly looks and feels different? Then you may be experiencing a phenomenon best described as Visual Reorientation Illusion.

A man reports a frequent flip of his world

In an interview on a Dutch radio show, a man described regularly occurring changes in his sense of orientation. He sometimes feels like his entire world, including himself, flips around by 90 degrees. After such a change in orientation occurs, he does not suddenly look into another direction, he is still in the same location, looking into the same direction. And what he sees has objectively not changed. Yet, he still perceives his environment as different because of the perceived change in orientation. He has experienced this phenomenon for all of his life.

Many people share the same experience     

After the radio show aired, several people contacted the radio station, reporting similar experiences. Afterwards, a second radioshow aired in which several individuals discussed their experiences. There was even a websitemade to illustrate the phenomenon to a wider audience. So far, not much is known about this phenomenon. The term that seems to describe the phenomenon most closely is that of the “visual reorientation illusion,” which is a term coined in space travel. 

Visual reorientation illusions: When the floor becomes the ceiling

When floating in an orbiting space craft, the gravitational terms “up” or “down” are meaningless. Thus, when an astronaut has been working in a particular orientation for a while, they typically begin to experience what is below them to be the floor and what is above them to be the ceiling. Yet, many astronauts report that when they have been working in a particular orientation and then see a crewmember floating in a way which for them is upside-down, they often experience an illusion in which the ceiling and the floor seem to exchange identities. Thus, what just seemed to be the floor now seems to be the ceiling and vice versa.

Back to earth

At first glance, the phenomenon described in the interview may seem very different from what astronauts experience in space travel. For instance, astronauts only experience this phenomenon during space travel. When they return back to earth, they do not experience visual reorientation illusions anymore. The interviewees, however, report to experience such changes in orientation in their day-to-day life here on earth. Also, the interviewees did not report a flip of floor and ceiling but rather a flip in other directions. But in both cases people report a sudden change in their experienced orientation, while what they see has objectively not changed. 

Research in Nijmegen

Since not much is known about the phenomenon, future research at the Donders institute is looking to investigate it. Do you experience the described phenomenon yourself, or do you simply want to contribute to our research? Please participate in our online study on individual differences in human navigation

More information about the phenomenon (Dutch), go to: https://orientatiedraai.wordpress.com
If you would like to participate in the study, go to: https://research.sc/participant/login

Author: Jasmin Kuhn
Buddy: Floortje Bouwkamp
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translation: Floortje Bouwkamp
Editor translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Image: based on a photo by Samy Saadi via Unsplash

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