Your brain gets used to seeing familiar things in certain ways. When the brain receives a strange view of a familiar object, the consequences can be intriguing. When this picture of Michelle Obama is viewed upside down, it appears normal even though it's upside down. But when viewed right side up, some bizarre differences are immediately apparent. This activity is based on an Exploratorium exhibit called Vanna, featuring two side-by-side images of TV personality Vanna White.
Three identical full-page (or at least fairly large) pictures of a familiar face from a magazine (try cover photos from popular magazines suitable to your audience—pictures of a smiling person work exceptionally well; avoid photos with shadows around the mouth area)
Poster board or cardboard for backing
Glue stick or other adhesive
Cut two pieces of poster board to the size of the pictures you cut out. If you’re using a magazine cover, you can use the whole cover or you can trim off the title. It’s not necessary to trim the picture to the outline of the person.
Glue the first picture to a piece of poster board.
Cut the eyes and mouth from the second picture. Turn them upside down and glue them over the eyes and mouth of the third picture. (Note that you’ll probably need to cut out slightly larger rectangular areas so they neatly cover the features on the third picture.)
Glue this picture to a piece of poster board.
To Do and Notice
Place both pictures upside down before letting anyone see them. Then have viewers look at the two upside-down pictures. Finally, turn both pictures around, and have viewers look at them right side up.
What’s Going On?
Your viewers may or may not recognize the personality in your picture when the picture is upside down. The two upside-down views may look strange (one perhaps stranger than the other), but turn them right side up and one looks normal, while the other may look grotesque.
Since an upside-down face is not a familiar point of view, your viewers may not have noticed that one of the pictures has been altered. It’s only when the photos are turned right side up, and the view is more familiar, that you notice the real difference.
Can people recognize familiar upside-down faces? Find digital images showing faces of familiar personalities online or use digital images of family members and friends. Make copies of these images, turn one copy upside down using a simple photo-editing program, and then ask people to identify the person.