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23 Writers Who Were Famous by Age 23

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Wikimedia Commons

While it's not as easy for authors to become famous at a young age as it is for pop singers, it's still not unheard of for barely legal authors to find fame, success, and even fortune. Here are 23 authors who manager to achieve fame—though not always positive—by age 23.

1-2. Guptara Twins

Date of Birth: November 22, 1988
Best Known For: The Insanity Saga (fantasy trilogy)
At age 11, the UK-born but Swiss-based fraternal Guptara twins completed the first draft of their first novel, Conspiracy of Calaspia. At 15, Jyoti was published in The Wall Street Journal. By age 17, their Conspiracy of Calaspia had become a bestseller; Jyoti and Suresh are considered two of the world's youngest bestselling authors. At age 20, the twins were selected as two of the "100 Most Important Swiss" by Schweizer Illustrierte magazine. That same year, the second book in the saga, Warrior Code/Codex Cumulus, was released in German. Now 23, the twins have recently completed book three in their saga.

3-4. Winner Twins

Date of Birth: c.1995 (not publicized)
Best Known For: The Strand Prophecy (sci-fi trilogy)

By age 12, identical twins Brianna and Brittany had completed their first novel, The Strand Prophecy. At age 13, their book reached national distribution through Barnes & Noble. By the end of 10th grade, Brianna and Brittany had completed 4 novels, a screenplay, a comic book, and a guide to writing. At age 17, the twins were featured on the "Young Icons" show on the CW. The third and final novel in their Strand series and the first book in a new series are expected to be published this year, all before they graduate high school. Oh, and to top it all off, they're dyslexic.

5. Gordon Korman

Date of Birth: October 23, 1963
Best Known For: Macdonald Hall (children's series)
At age 12, in 7th grade, Korman sent one of his completed writing assignments in to Scholastic; the manuscript was published that same year as This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, which became the first in a series. At 17, Korman received an Air Canada Award for promising authors in Canada. By the end of high school, he had published five books. At age 23, he had 11 books in print. Now 48, his books--more than 75 of them--have sold upwards of 7 million copies. One of his series, The Monday Night Football Club, was turned into the 4-season TV show "The Jersey" on the Disney Channel; Macdonald Hall, that series he started in 7th grade, was optioned as a TV show, but not produced.

6. Mary Shelley

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Date of Birth: August 30, 1797
Best Known For: Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
When she was almost 17 years old, Mary Godwin fell in love with Percy Shelley, who was five years her senior; just before her 17th birthday, they ran away to France together. Before she was even 18, she had given birth and suffered the death of her baby. At age 18, she gave birth to a son. At age 19, Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein while spending the summer in Switzerland and she began writing the manuscript. Later that year, she married Percy Shelley and gave birth to a daughter. Before her 20th birthday, Mary had completed the Frankenstein manuscript. When she was 20, Mary edited and published History of a Six Weeks' Tour, journaling her group's 1814 trip. At age 21, her novel was published, though anonymously, leaving readers to assume the author was Percy Shelley. Also while 21, she endured the deaths of both her children, but gave birth to another son at age 22. During that time, she wrote 2 novels and 2 plays.

7. Percy Shelley

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Date of Birth: August 4, 1792
Best Known For: "Ozymandias" and Ode to the West Wind
By 18, Shelley published one novel, Zastrozzi, and 2 collections of poetry, one with his sister Elizabeth and the other with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. At age 18, while attending Oxford, he published another novel, St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian, and a treatise on atheism. The pamphlet got him in trouble with the administration at Oxford, resulting in his expulsion at age 18. Shortly after turning 19, Shelley eloped with a 16-year-old, Harriet Westbrook.Age 20 brought the publication of a ballad, The Devil's Walk. By age 21, he had published another major poem, Queen Mab. When he was 22, he abandoned his pregnant wife Harriet and ran away with 16-year-old Mary Godwin. Before he turned 24, Shelley published 3 more works.

8. Minou Drouet

Date of Birth: July 24, 1947
Best Known For: Arbre, Mon Ami
By age 6, Drouet reportedly was not yet speaking but, when she heard a Brahms symphony, she swooned, and began speaking upon awakening. She also began to write poetry. When she was 8 years old, Drouet's poetry was read and discussed by the French writing community, with some believing the young girl's adoptive mother was the true author. Within a year, Drouet had proven her ability by writing poems solo in front of witnesses, including a test for admission to France's Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers. When Drouet was about 9 years old, André Parinaud published a book about her, L'Affaire Minou Drouet. In 1957, at 10 years old, Drouet published her first book, Arbre mon ami, which was, according to the New Yorker, "phenomenally successful." From roughly age 10 to age 18, Drouet was on tour as both an author and a musician--she played piano and guitar. During that time, she published 3 more books. Around age 19, she took a 2-year hiatus from public life before becoming a singer-songwriter and children's novelist around age 21.
Before age 23, Drouet had published 2 more books.

9. Alec Greven

Date of Birth: c.1999 (not publicized)
Best Known For: How to Talk to Girls (children's book)
At just 9 years old, Greven published his first book, How to Talk to Girls, which started out as a project for school. Between February 2008 and April 2009, he appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. By January 4, 2009, the book had made it onto the New York Times bestseller list. In 2009, Greven published three more books: How to Talk to Moms, How to Talk to Dads, and How to Talk to Santa. In 2010, at roughly 11-years-old, he published Rules for School. His books are available in 17 countries.

10. Hilda Conkling

Date of Birth: 1910
Best Known For: Poems by a Little Girl (collection of poetry)
When she was 4 years old, Hilda Conkling began composing poetry, reciting them to her mother, who would record the poems. Mrs. Conkling would later read the poems back to her daughter, who would correct anything her mother had recorded incorrectly. Between ages 4 and 10, Hilda wrote most of her poetry; during that time, her poems were published in magazines, including Good Housekeeping. At age 10, her first collection of poetry was published, Poems by a Little Girl. At age 12, her second collection, Shoes of the Wind, was published, followed by a third collection, Silverhorn, at age 14. When she was 15, her poems were included in the anthology Silver Pennies.

11. Helen Keller

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Date of Birth: June 27, 1880
Best Known For: The Story of My Life (her autobiography)
At 19 months, Keller fell ill and was left both deaf and blind. When she was 6, she was able to communicate with her family through a collection of more than 60 gestures developed over the years. Shortly before Keller's 7th birthday, Anne Sullivan arrived to serve as her instructor. At age 11, Keller wrote a short story, "The Frost King," that she sent as a gift to the head of the Perkins School for the Blind; the story was then published in the school's alumni magazine, followed by a deaf-blind education journal, The Goodson Gazette. A controversy erupted over the story, which was said to be strikingly similar to Margaret Canby's "Frost Fairies." At age 12, Keller endured a "trial" of sorts at Perkins, including a 2-hour interrogation; although the trial ended in Keller's favor, Michael Anagnos, the head of Perkins, had lost all trust in Keller and Sullivan, and Keller suffered a nervous breakdown. When she was 22, while attending Radcliffe College, Keller published her autobiography, The Story of My Life.

12. Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud

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Date of Birth: October 20, 1854
Best Known For: Une Saison en Enfer (extended poem)
At age 15, Rimbaud's poem "Les Étrennes des orphelins" ("The Orphans' New Year's Gift") became his first poem in print when it was published in Revue pour tous. At age 16, Rimbaud wrote "Le Bateau ivre," which he sent to the poet Paul Verlaine as an introduction. A month before his 17th birthday, Rimbaud travelled to Paris at the request of Verlaine and began a brief but torrid affair with the older poet. Shortly before his 18th birthday, Rimbaud left Paris with Verlaine, who abandoned his wife and child, to move to London. When he was almost 19, Rimbaud returned to Paris; when Verlaine later joined him, the reunion did not go well, and Verlaine shot at Rimbaud in a drunken rage, hitting Rimbaud in the wrist. (As a result of the ensuing police investigation into the attempted murder as well as the two men's relationship, Verlaine received a 2-year prison sentence.) When he was 19, Rimbaud published Une Saison en Enfer, Rimbaud's first and only work published by himself. By age 20, Rimbaud had given up creative writing for good. When he was 21, he enlisted in the Dutch Colonial Army, but subsequently deserted once he got to the Dutch East Indies. (Though Rimbaud had only one published work before the age of 23, he had many other poems circulating through the French literary scene, and he was well-known, if in large part for his relationship with Verlaine.)

13. Barbara Newhall Follett

Date of Birth: March 4, 1914
Best Known For: The House Without Windows
By age 4, Follett was already writing poetry. At age 12, she wrote her first novel, The House Without Windows, with help from her father, Wilson Follett, a critic and editor. When she was 13, Follett's book was published by Knopf to great acclaim, bringing fame to the young author. At age 14, she published The Voyage of the Norman D. to more critical acclaim; that same year, her father walked out on the family. Over the next few years, Follett wrote several more manuscripts, but she never published anything else, and she disappeared at age 25.

14. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

Date of Birth: April 16, 1984
Best Known For: In the Forests of the Night (YA fantasy)
When she was 13, Atwater-Rhodes wrote her first novel, though she had more than a dozen stories in development, and first met her agent. At age 15, Atwater-Rhodes saw the publication of In the Forests of the Night, her first book, though it was a year later than expected. The month following her 16th birthday, she published Demon in My View, a sequel to her first book. At age 17, Atwater-Rhodes graduated high school a year early and published Shattered Moon, her third book. About 8 months after the publication of Shattered Moon, when she was 18, Atwater-Rhodes published Midnight Predator. At age 19, she published her fifth novel, Hawksong, her first non-vampire book, which won Best Book of the Year from the School Library Journal.Age 20 saw the publication of Snakecharm, followed by Falcondance at age 21, Wolfcry at age 22, and Wyvernhail at age 23. In the meantime, she had also managed to graduate magna cum laude with a double major from University of Massachusetts Boston and was featured in numerous publications, including Seventeen and The New Yorker.

15. Christopher Paolini

Date of Birth: November 17, 1983
Best Known For: Eragon (YA fantasy)
At age 15, Paolini graduated high school and then began writing his first book. Three years later, when he was 18, his book Eragon was published by his parents' company and Paolini embarked on a 135-stop promotion tour. That same year, Eragon was discovered by Carl Hiaasen and bought by Knopf. When he was 19, Paolini's book was re-published and landed on the New York Times bestseller list. At age 21, Paolini wrote an essay for the anthology Guys Write for Guys Read and published his second book in the Inheritance Cycle series, Eldest. At just 23 years old, Paolini saw his first novel adapted into a major motion picture.

16. Alexander Pope

Date of Birth: May 21, 1688
Best Known For: The Rape of the Lock
As a child of 12, Pope wrote "Ode on Solitude," which was not published at the time but would later be included in most anthologies of his work. When he was 21, Pope rocketed to fame with the publication of his Pastorals as part of the publisher Jacob Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies. Right around his 23rd birthday, Pope released An Essay on Criticism, which, though published anonymously, was also well-received. (The Rape of the Lock, arguably Pope's most famous work, was first published when he was 24.)

17. S.E. Hinton

Date of Birth: July 22, 1950
Best Known For: The Outsiders (YA fiction)
At age 15, Hinton began work on her first book, and she completed the book at age 16. When she was 18, her first novel, The Outsiders, was released under the initials S.E. instead of the name Susan to avoid any sexism or prejudice. For 3 years, Hinton suffered writer's block as a result of the publicity and pressure--including being dubbed "The Voice of the Youth"--surrounding The Outsiders. Over the course of 1970, Hinton wrote her second book in two-page-a-day increments; she married her boyfriend a few months after completing the manuscript during the summer she turned 20. In 1971, she published her second novel, That Was Then, This Is Now. Both of Hinton's pre-23-years-old novels were adapted into major motion pictures.

18. Joyce Maynard

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Date of Birth: November 5, 1953
Best Known For: At Home in the World (memoir)
At age 12, Maynard won her first student writing prize from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards; she also won in 1967, 1968, 1970, and 1971. As a teenager, she was a writer for Seventeen magazine while she attended Phillips Exeter Academy for high school. At age 17, as she started classes at Yale, Maynard submitted her work to the New York Times Magazine, who hired her to write an article. When she was 18, her article "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life was published in The New York Times Magazine, which lead to a complimentary letter from 53-year-old J.D. Salinger. Before her 19th birthday, Maynard had exchanged 25 letters with Salinger, had dropped out of school following her freshman year, and had moved in with Salinger at his home in New Hampshire, where Maynard stayed for 10 months. In 1973, Maynard published her first book, the memoir Looking Back, in which Salinger is not mentioned, at his request. At age 20, she bought her first house with the proceeds from her memoir. Between the ages of 20 and 23, Maynard contributed to the CBS radio and television series "Spectrum." In 1975 at the ripe old age of 23, she was hired as a general reporter at the New York Times. (Maynard is most well-known for her 1999 memoir, At Home in the World, as it was the first time she revealed her relationship with Salinger in writing.)

19. William Cullen Bryant

Date of Birth: November 3, 1794
Best Known For: "Thanatopsis" (poem)
When he was 13, Bryant published "The Embargo," a satirical poem attacking President Thomas Jefferson; the poem quickly sold out, necessitating a second (expanded) edition, due in part to publicity over Bryant's age. Sometime around 1813 (or earlier or later, depending on your source), when Bryant was a young adult, he wrote what would become known as "Thanatopsis." When he was 21, Bryant was inspired to write the poem "To a Waterfowl" after watching a duck flying across the sunset. (The poem was not published for another 2.5 years.) In 1816, he began practicing law, since poetry didn't pay very well. When Bryant was 22 years old, his father submitted some of his son's verses to the North American Review, where the pieces were joined together and given the title "Thanatopsis" (though it was mistakenly attributed to Mr. Bryant instead of his son); the poem was well-received.

20. Kaavya Viswanathan

Date of Birth: c.1986 (not publicized)
Best Known For: How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (YA fiction)
While in high school, the India-born but America-based Viswanathan showed an assortment of her writing to her private college admissions counselor, was then signed to the William Morris Agency, and received a two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company. During the summer after high school and her freshman year at Harvard, Viswanathan completed the manuscript for her first book. When Viswanathan was a 19-year-old sophomore, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was published, the movie rights were bought by DreamWorks, and Viswanathan was featured in the New York Times. But less than a month after the book's release, Viswanathan became embroiled in controversy when allegations of plagiarism were raised. By the end of Viswanathan's sophomore year, she had been accused of plagiarizing 5 different prominent authors: Megan McCafferty, Salman Rushdie, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Tanuja Desai Hidier. By the start of her junior year, Viswanathan had been interviewed for numerous stories about the plagiarism allegations, she had lost her book deal, all copies of her book had been recalled by the publisher (and first editions were being sold on eBay for triple their original price), and production of the film adaptation had been halted, though the scandal didn't affect her status at Harvard. In 2008, Viswanathan graduated with honors; she made the news again briefly the following year when she entered Georgetown University as a first-year law student. (Post-23, she has presumably graduated from Georgetown; she also suffered the deaths of her parents in a plane accident in 2011.)

21. Bret Easton Ellis

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Date of Birth: March 7, 1964
Best Known For: American Psycho
In the 1980s before he published any books, Ellis was a part-time musician. At age 21, Ellis had written his first novel, Less Than Zero, for which the movie rights were purchased before the book was even published. When the book was published in 1985, it was criticized by many and petitions against the book caused Simon & Schuster to drop Ellis. That same year, Less Than Zero became a bestseller when re-published by Knopf, due in part to the controversy; it sold 50,000 copies in 1985. At age 23, Ellis published his second novel, The Rules of Attraction. The same year, Less Than Zero was adapted into a major motion picture which Ellis initially hated, though he now feels "sentimental" towards it.

22. Stephen Crane

Date of Birth: November 1, 1871
Best Known For: The Red Badge of Courage
By age 4, Crane had taught himself to read and was already writing. He was 8 when he first enrolled in school and completed the work of two grades in just six weeks. At age 14, Crane wrote "Uncle Jake and the Bell Handle," his first known story. When he was 16, he joined the staff of his brother's news bureau for the summer. At 18, his first signed article was published. At 19, his story "Great Bugs of Onondaga" was published in two newspapers; he then decided to leave school to devote himself to working as a reporter and writer. Over the course of 1892, when Crane was 20, he had 14 unsigned stories published in the New York Tribune. That same year, one of his stories for the Tribune created a firestorm of controversy when the subjects felt they were being ridiculed; Crane's work for the Tribune ended that year. At 21, Crane self-published his first book, A Girl of the Streets, later titled Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which is considered "the first work of American literary Naturalism." Also at age 21, Crane began work on a war novel, selling stories to newspapers to make money and simultaneously writing a handful of poems each day; his first collection of poems, The Black Riders and Other Lines, was accepted by a publisher that year. Just after turning 23, Crane's war story, The Red Badge of Courage, was published serially in newspapers, and he embarked on a trip through the West (of the U.S.) to write syndicated newspaper articles. While 23, Crane began work on 2 new novels--The Third Violet and George's Mother--and finally saw the publication of The Black Riders, which caused some commotion over its unconventional poetry. Also while he was 23, Crane's The Red Badge of Courage was published in book form and spent 4 months on bestseller lists around the country, with two or three more printings in 1895.

23. Helen Oyeyemi

Date of Birth: December 10, 1984
Best Known For: The Icarus Girl
During her time studying for A levels, Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl. At college, she wrote two plays that were performed at school and later published by a British publishing company. When she was 20, Oyeyemi's The Icarus Girl was published. Two years later, at age 22, her second novel, The Opposite House, was published by Bloomsbury.

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literature
5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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science
10 Award-Winning Optical Illusions and Brain Puzzles
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"The Spinning Disks Illusion"
Used by permission of Johannes Zanker

When the new book Champions of Illusion: The Science Behind Mind-Boggling Images and Mystifying Brain Puzzles arrived at the Mental Floss offices, we couldn't flip through it—and flip our brains out—fast enough.

Created by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, professors of ophthalmology, neurology, physiology, and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, the book is a fascinating compilation of award-winning images from the Best Illusion of the Year contest, which Martinez-Conde and Macknik first created for a neuroscience conference in 2005. Since then, the contest has produced some truly mind-bending mind tricks that challenge our sense of perception of the world around us. As the authors write:

Your brain creates a simulation of the world that may or may not match the real thing. The "reality" you experience is the result of your exclusive interaction with that simulation. We de­fine "illusions" as the phenomena in which your perception differs from physical reality in a way that is readily evident. You may see something that is not there, or fail to see something that is there, or see something in a way that does not reflect its physical properties.

Just as a painter creates the illusion of depth on a flat canvas, our brain creates the illusion of depth based on information arriving from our essentially two-dimensional retinas. Illusions show us that depth, color, brightness, and shape are not absolute terms but are subjective, relative experiences created actively by our brain's circuits. This is true not only of visual experiences but of any and all sensory perceptions, and even of how we ponder our emotions, thoughts, and memories. Whether we are experiencing the feeling of "redness," the appearance of "square­ness," or emotions such as love and hate, these are the result of the activity of neurons in our brain.

Yes, there is a real world out there, and you perceive events that occur around you, however incorrectly or incompletely. But you have never actually lived in the real world, in the sense that your experience never matches physical reality perfectly. Your brain instead gathers pieces of data from your sensory systems—some of which are quite imprecise or, frankly, wrong.

It's never been so fun to be wrong. Here are 10 of our favorite images from Champions of Illusion, accompanied by explanations from the book of how and why they work.

1. "THE COFFER ILLUSION," ANTHONY NORCIA, SMITH-KETTLEWELL EYE RESEARCH INSTITUTE, U.S.A., 2007 FINALIST

coffer illusion by Anthony Norcia, Stanford University
Used by permission of Anthony Norcia, Stanford University

Information transmitted from the retina to the brain is constrained by physical limitations, such as the number of nerve fibers in the optic nerve (about a million wires). If each of these fibers was responsible for producing a pixel (a single point in a digital image), you should have lower resolution in your everyday vision than in the images from your iPhone camera, but of course this is not what we perceive.

One way our visual system overcomes these limitations—to present us with the perception of a fully realized world, despite the fundamental truth that our retinas are low-resolution imaging devices—is by disregarding redundant features in objects and scenes. Our brains preferentially extract, emphasize, and process those unique components that are critical to identifying an object. Sharp discontinuities in the contours of an object, such as corners, are less redundant—and therefore more critical to vision—because they contain more information than straight edges or soft curves. The perceptual result is that corners are more sa­lient than non-corners.

The Coffer Illusion contains sixteen circles that are invisible at first sight, obscured by the rectilinear shapes in the pattern. The illusion may be due, at least in part, to our brain's preoccupation with corners and angles.

2. "THE ROTATING SNAKES ILLUSION," AKIYOSHI KITAOKA, RITSUMEIKAN UNIVERSITY, JAPAN, 2005 FINALIST

"The Rotating Snakes Illusion" by Akiyoshi Kitaoka
Used by permission of Akiyoshi Kitaoka

This illusion is a magnificent example of how we perceive illusory motion from a stationary image. The "snakes" in the pattern appear to rotate as you move your eyes around the figure. In reality, nothing is moving other than your eyes!

If you hold your gaze steadily on one of the "snake" centers, the motion will slow down or even stop. Our research, conducted in collaboration with Jorge Otero-Millan, revealed that the jerky eye motions—such as microsaccades, larger saccades, and even blinks—that people make when looking at an image are among the key elements that produce illusions such as Kitaoka's Rotating Snakes.

Alex Fraser and Kimerly J. Wilcox discovered this type of illusory motion effect in 1979, when they developed an image showing repetitive spiral arrangements of luminance gradients that appeared to move. Fraser and Wilcox's illusion was not nearly as effective as Kitaoka's il­lusion, but it did spawn a number of related effects that eventually led to the Rotating Snakes. This family of perceptual phenomena is characterized by the periodic placement of colored or grayscale patches of particular brightnesses.

In 2005, Bevil Conway and his colleagues showed that Kitaoka's illusory layout drives the responses of motion-sensitive neurons in the visual cortex, providing a neural basis for why most people (but not all) perceive motion in the image: We see the snakes rotate because our visual neurons respond as if the snakes were actually in motion.

Why doesn't this illusion work for everyone? In a 2009 study, Jutta Billino, Kai Ham­burger, and Karl Gegenfurtner, of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, tested 139 subjects—old and young—with a battery of illusions involving motion, including the Rotating Snakes pattern. They found that older people perceived less illusory rotation than younger subjects.

3. "THE HEALING GRID," RYOTA KANAI, UTRECHT UNIVERSITY, THE NETHERLANDS, 2005 FINALIST

healing grid illusion by Ryota Kanai
Used by permission of Ryota Kanai

Let your eyes explore this image freely and you will see a regular pattern of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines in the center, flanked by an irregular grid of misaligned crosses to the left and right. Choose one of the intersections in the center of the image and stare at it for 30 seconds or so. You will see that the grid "heals" itself, becoming perfectly regular all the way through.

The illusion derives, in part, from "perceptual fading," the phenomenon in which an unchanging visual image fades from view. When you stare at the center of the pattern, the grid's outer parts fade more than its center due to the comparatively lower resolution of your peripheral vision. The ensuing neural guesstimates that your brain imposes to "reconstruct" the faded outer flanks are based on the available information from the center, as well as your nervous system's intrinsic tendency to seek structure and order, even when the sensory in­put is fundamentally disorganized.

Because chaos is inherently unordered and unpredictable, the brain must use a lot of energy and resources to process truly chaotic information (like white noise on your TV screen). By simplifying and imposing order on images like this one, the brain can reduce the amount of information it must process. For example, because the brain can store the image as a rectilinear framework of white rows and columns against a black background—rather than keeping track of every single cross's position—it saves energy and mental storage space. It also simplifies your interpretation of the meaning of such an object.

4. "MASK OF LOVE," GIANNI SARCONE, COURTNEY SMITH, AND MARIE-JO WAEBER, ARCHIMEDES LABORATORY PROJECT, ITALY, 2011 FINALIST

mask of love by Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber
Courtesy of Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber. Copyright © Gianni A. Sarcone, giannisarcone.com. All rights reserved.

This illusion was discovered in an old photograph of two lovers sent to Archimedes' Laboratory, a consulting group in Italy that specializes in perceptual puzzles. Gianni Sarcone, the leader of the group, saw the image pinned to the wall and, being nearsighted, thought it was a single face. After putting on his eyeglasses, he realized what he was looking at. The team then superimposed the beautiful Venetian mask over the photograph to create the final effect.

This type of illusion is called "bistable" because, as in the classic Face/Vase illusion, you may see either a single face or a couple, but not both at once. Our visual system tends to see what it expects, and because only one mask is present, we assume at first glance that it surrounds a single face.

5. "AGE IS ALL IN YOUR HEAD," VICTORIA SKYE, U.S.A., 2014 FINALIST

age is all in your head illusion by Victoria Skye
Used by permission of Victoria Skye

The magician, photographer, and illusion creator Victoria Skye was having a hard time taking a picture of a photo portrait of her father as a teen. The strong overhead lighting was ruining the shot, so she tilted the camera to avoid the glare, first one way and then the other. As she moved her camera back and forth, she saw her father morph from teen to boy and then to adult.

Skye's illusion is an example of anamorphic perspective. By tilting her camera, she created two opposite vanishing points, producing the illusion of age progression and regression. In the case of age progression, the top of the head narrows and the bottom half of the face expands, creating a stronger chin and a more mature look. In the case of age regression, the opposite happens: the forehead expands and the chin narrows, producing a childlike appearance.

Skye thinks that her illusion may explain why, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we sometimes see our parents, but not always. "I wonder if that is what happens to me when I look in the mirror and see my mom. Do I see her because I tilt my head and age myself just as I did with the camera and my dad?" she asked.

6. "THE ROTATING-TILTED-LINES ILLUSION," SIMONE GORI AND KAI HAMBURGER

rotating tilted lines illusion by Simone Gori and Kai Hamburger
Used by permission of Simone Gori and Kai Hamburger

To experience the illusion, move your head forward and backward as you fixate in the central area (or, alternatively, hold your head still and move the page). As you approach the image, notice that the radial lines appear to rotate counterclockwise. As you move away from the image, the lines appear to rotate clockwise. Vision scientists have shown that illusory motion activates brain areas that are also activated by real motion. This could help explain why our perception of illusory motion is qualitatively similar to our perception of real motion.

7. "PULSATING HEART," GIANNI SARCONE, COURTNEY SMITH, AND MARIE-JO WAEBER, ARCHIMEDES LABORATORY PROJECT, ITALY, 2014 FINALIST

Pulsating Heart illusion by Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber
Courtesy of Gianni Sarcone, Courtney Smith, and Marie-Jo Waeber. Copyright © Gianni A. Sarcone, giannisarcone.com. All rights reserved.

This Op Art–inspired illusion produces the sensation of expanding motion from a completely stationary image. Static repetitive patterns with just the right mix of contrasts trick our visual system's motion-sensitive neurons into signaling movement. Here the parallel arrangement of opposing needle-shaped red and white lines makes us perceive an ever-expanding heart. Any other outline delimited in a similar fashion would also appear to pulsate and swell.

8. "GHOSTLY GAZE," ROB JENKINS, UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW, UK, 2008 SECOND PRIZE

ghostly gaze illusion by Rob Jenkins
Used by permission of Rob Jenkins

Not knowing where a person is looking makes us uneasy. That's why speaking with somebody who is wearing dark sunglasses can be awkward. And it is why someone might wear dark sunglasses to look "mysterious." The Ghostly Gaze Illusion, created by Rob Jenkins, takes advantage of this unsettling effect. In this illusion, twin sisters appear to look at each other when seen from afar. But as you approach them, you realize that the sisters are looking directly at you!

The illusion is a hybrid image that combines two pictures of the same woman. The overlapping photos differ in two important ways: their spatial detail (fine or coarse) and the direction of their gaze (sideways or straight ahead). The images that look toward each other contain only coarse features, whereas the ones that look straight ahead are made up of sharp details. When you approach the pictures, you are able to see all the fine detail, and so the sisters seem to look straight ahead. But when you move away, the gross detail dominates, and the sisters appear to look into each other's eyes.

9. "ELUSIVE ARCH," DEJAN TODOROVIC, UNIVERSITY OF BELGRADE, SERBIA, 2005 FINALIST

Elusive Arch illusion by Dejan Todorovic
Used by permission of Dejan Todorovic

Is this an image of three shiny oval tubes? Or is it three pairs of alternating ridges and grooves?

The left side of the figure appears to be three tubes, but the right side looks like a corrugated surface. This illusion occurs because our brain interprets the bright streaks on the figure's surface as either highlights at the peaks and troughs of the tubes or as inflections between the grooves. Determining the direction of the illumination is difficult: it depends on whether we consider the light as falling on a receding or an expanding surface.

Trying to determine where the image switches from tubes to grooves is maddening. In fact, there is no transition region: the whole image is both "tubes" and "grooves," but our brain can only settle on one or the other interpretation at a time. This seemingly simple task short-circuits our neural mechanisms for determining an object's shape.

10. "FLOATING STAR," JOSEPH HAUTMAN / KAIA NAO, 2012 FINALIST

floating star illusion by Joseph Hautman, aka Kaia Nao
Used by permission of Joseph Hautman, aka Kaia Nao. Copyright © Kaia Nao

This five-pointed star is static, but many observers experience the powerful illusion that it is rotating clockwise. Created by the artist Joseph Hautman, who moonlights as a graphic designer under the pseudonym "Kaia Nao," it is a variation on Kitaoka's Rotating Snakes Illusion. Hautman determined that an irregular pattern, unlike the geometric one Kitaoka used, was particularly effective for achieving illusory motion.

Here the dark blue jigsaw pieces have white and black borders against a lightly colored background. As you look around the image, your eye movements stimulate motion-sensitive neurons. These neurons signal motion by virtue of the shifting lightness and darkness boundaries that indicate an object's contour as it moves through space. Carefully arranged transitions between white, light-colored, black, and dark-colored regions fool the neurons into responding as if they were seeing continual motion in the same direction, rather than stationary edges.

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