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The motion aftereffect (MAE) is a visual illusion perceived after watching a moving visual stimulus for about a minute and then looking at stationary stimulus. The stationary stimulus appears to move slightly for about 15 seconds, opposite to the direction of the original (physically moving) stimulus. The motion aftereffect is believed to be the result of motion adaptation.

For example, if one looks at a waterfall for about a minute and then looks at the stationary rocks at the side of the waterfall, these rocks appear to be moving upwards slightly. The illusory upwards movement is the motion aftereffect. This particular motion aftereffect is also known as the waterfall illusion.


Neurons coding a particular movement reduce their responses with time of exposure to a constantly moving stimulus; this is neural adaptation. Neural adaptation also reduces the responses of these same neurons when responding to a stationary stimulus (see, for example, Barlow & Hill, 1963; Srinivasan & Dvorak, 1979). One theory is that stationariness, for example of rocks beside a waterfall, is coded as the balance between the responses of neurons stimulated by upwards movement and the reponses of neurons stimulated by downwards movement. Neural adaptation of neurons stimulated by downwards movement reduces their responses, tilting the balance in favour of upwards movement.


Aristotle (approx. 350 B.C.) reported illusory movement after viewing constant movement, but did not specify its direction. The first clear specification of the motion aftereffect was by Jan Evangelista Purkyně (1820) who observed it after looking at a cavalry parade. Robert Addams (1834) reported the waterfall illusion after observing it at the Falls of Foyers in Scotland. According to Verstraten (1996) the term waterfall illusion was coined by Thompson (1888).

See also


  • Addams, R. (1834). An account of a peculiar optical phænomenon seen after having looked at a moving body. London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 5, 373–374
  • Aristotle (approx. 350 B.C.) Parva Naturalia.
  • Barlow, H. B., & Hill, R. M. (1963). Evidence for a physiological explanation of the waterfall illusion. Nature, 200, 1345-1347.
  • Purkinje JE (1820) Beiträge zur näheren Kenntniss des Schwindels aus heautognostischen Daten. Medicinische Jahrbücher des kaiserlich-königlichen österreichischen Staates, 6, 79–125.
  • Srinivasan, M. V., & Dvorak, D. R. (1979). The waterfall illusion in an insect visual system. Vision Research, 19, 1435-1437.
  • Thompson, P. (1880). Optical illusions of motion. Brain, 3, 289-298.
  • Verstraten, F. A. J. (1996). On the ancient history of the direction of the motion aftereffect. Perception, 25, 1177-1188.


  • Mather, G., Verstraten, F., & Ansti, S. (1998). The motion aftereffect: A modern perspective. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
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