Research Spotlight: “Scintillating Starburst” classified as novel visual illusion

Oftentimes we are inclined to think about academic research as existing in one of two worlds: the world of the arts and humanities, and the world of science. However, thinking of these two areas as separate can be very limiting. In fact, it is at the intersection of these two worlds that some of the academic world’s most interesting discoveries have occurred.

Such is the case with a new type of visual illusion dubbed, the “Scintillating Starburst.” The illusion which can be best described as a series of rays of light that burst out from the center of a series of geometric rings was created by visual artist Michael Karlovich. He would later bring it to CDS Professor Pascal Wallisch to see if the illusion was new or a known illusory effect. Professor Wallisch, who has a background in perceptual neuroscience, realized that the starburst effect was novel and set out to elucidate its mechanism.

This led to a study of the visual illusion and the publication of “Scintillating Starbursts: Concentric Star Polygons Induce Illusory Ray Patterns” in i-Perception in late June 2021. In the paper, co-authors Karlovich and Wallisch explored the phenomenological experiences of observers in response to varying visual features of the stimuli (like their line width).

From a data science perspective, several things are notable. First, the authors ran a 5-way ANOVA, including all 5 stimulus dimensions the authors considered relevant. Second, over 100 observers participated in the study. Typically, this kind of study might utilize a small handful of participants, but by analyzing responses for such a large pool, the authors ensured that the study had high statistical power. Finally, representing observer responses to all 162 unique patterns resulting from all combinations of the 5 stimulus dimensions required an innovative approach to data visualization:

When speaking to us about the research, Professor Wallisch stressed how the study is a rare blend of art and science:

“Lots of people talk about interdisciplinary research and that art and science should collaborate more often. In practice, such interactions are sadly rather rare. So this was a good opportunity to blend the creative powers and aesthetic beauty of art with the analytical powers and rigor of science.”




Official account of the Center for Data Science at NYU, home of the Undergraduate, Master’s, and Ph.D. programs in Data Science.

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NYU Center for Data Science

NYU Center for Data Science

Official account of the Center for Data Science at NYU, home of the Undergraduate, Master’s, and Ph.D. programs in Data Science.

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