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Michelle O

Science Snack
Michelle O
A face seen upside down may hold some surprises.
Michelle O
A face seen upside down may hold some surprises.

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 Scarlett, featuring two side-by-side images of actress Scarlett Johansson.

Tools and Materials
  • Three identical full-page (or at least fairly large) pictures of a familiar face (you can print out the image of Michelle Obama that we used, try printing head shots of celebrities from the Internet or find popular magazine covers suitable to your audience—pictures of a smiling person work exceptionally well; avoid photos with shadows around the mouth area)
  • Scissors
  • Glue stick or other adhesive
  • Poster board or cardboard for backing
  1. 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 trim off the title. It’s not necessary to trim the picture to the outline of the person.
  2. Glue the first picture to a piece of poster board.
  3. Cut out the eyes and mouth from the second picture. (For best results, cut out an extra large rectangular area around each part, especially the mouth, to begin.)
  4. Turn these upside down and glue them over the eyes and mouth of the third picture. (Trim the cut outs as needed so they neatly cover the features on the third picture.)
  5. Glue this combined picture to a second piece of poster board.
To Do and Notice

Before letting anyone see them, place the two pictures side by side on a table and position them so they are upside down to the viewer.

When you're ready, invite viewers to look at and compare the two pictures. 

Finally, rotate 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.

Going Further

Can people recognize familiar upside-down faces? If a face is only partially rotated, does it still look strange? Find digital images showing faces of familiar personalities online or use digital images of family members and friends. Make copies of these images, alter one copy using a simple photo-editing program, and then ask people to identify the person.