The Flashed Face Distortion Effect – Pretty Girls Turn Ugly

Like most fascinating phenomena, the flashed face distortion effect was discovered completely by accident. Honors student Sean Murphy had eye-aligned pictures of faces in the University of Queensland psychology lab and was playing around with them when he first noticed the grotesque faces staring back at him. When he looked at the faces individually however, they appeared normal and some were even attractive.

In their research paper, Tangen, Murphy and Thompson (2011) claim:

We describe a novel face distortion effect resulting from the fast-paced presentation of eye-aligned faces. When cycling through the faces on a computer screen, each face seems to become a caricature of itself and some faces appear highly deformed, even grotesque. The degree of distortion is greatest for faces that deviate from the others in the set on a particular dimension (eg if a person has a large forehead, it looks particularly large). This new method of image presentation, based on alignment and speed, could provide a useful tool for investigating contrastive distortion effects and face adaptation.

“What it means, basically, is that as the faces flash, certain features get distorted by your brain, and the amount of distortion depends on how much that feature deviates from the rest in the set. In other words, someone with slightly larger eyes gets perceived by you as having huge eyes” (Plait, 2011).

The researchers are not sure what exactly causes the phenomenon but they are very confident that it is related to adaptation and the face distortion after effect.

Do you see any monsters in the video above? Leave a comment below and let us know!


Plait, P. (201, July 15). Disturbing face distortion illusion. Bad Astronomy. Retrieved from on March 27, 2012.

Tangen, J. M., Murphy, S., & Thompson, M. B. (2011). Flashed face distortion effect: Grotesque faces from relative spaces. Perception advance online publication, doi:10.1068/p6968

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