In a new optical illusion, what you see in the picture supposedly reveals something about your gender. But much like other ambiguous images, this illusion plays on the way our brains love to fill in missing context with our own pre-conceived notions. But whether or not that means your brain is “male” or “female” relies on some musty old pseudoscience (at best).
Let’s get something out of the way: this illusion comes from a story in the New York Post, republished from the British tabloid The Sun, which in turn is citing a brief item from a content mill called Fact Factories. We’re not talking about groundbreaking research from Harvard or anything—this material is designed to rile you up.
The optical illusion is simple: it’s a black-and-white image showing the outline of a masculine-looking body in the middle of a running stride in a tunnel (the image at the top of this story is very similar, but you can find the original here). The picture is ambiguous because there’s no suggestion whether the body is facing toward or away from the viewer.
The original Fact Factories post doesn’t explicitly say either interpretation is “male” or “female” brained, but The Sun extrapolates some conclusions. If you see the runner coming toward you, the publication says, that indicates a “male” brain; if you see the runner moving away from you, then you have a “female” brain. The traits assigned aren’t defined one way or the other, but rather listed like a horoscope.
The Sun made a similar splash in August last year when it posted a different “which direction?” illusion and linked it, instead, with the “left brain” versus “right brain” debate—another association that is flimsy, but divisive. This is part of a larger internet phenomenon sometimes known as “chum,” like those rows of “stories” you see online at the bottom of a page that say something like, “You won’t believe what this child star looks like today!”
Fact Factories mentions James Damore, the onetime Google software engineer who made news in 2017 when he wrote a memo describing how women are simply not as inclined toward engineering as men are. It’s true that women are underrepresented in fields like software engineering (and computer science professions in general), but differences in math success don’t appear until high school, for example, and aren’t inherently biological.
While today women theoretically have access to almost any job, that follows centuries when they weren’t allowed to work outside the home except in very specific careers (and could not even live alone or have their own bank accounts). Harvard University dates back to 1636, for instance, but women weren’t admitted to any of its schools until the Harvard Graduate School of Education first admitted women in 1920. (Education is historically one of the few fields available to women.)
Both men and women may see a figure coming toward them or running away from them, because the image, itself, is ambiguous by design. The illusion may not indicate anything about our brains—remember, no one was saying that seeing the donkey or seal meant you were more “female” or “male,” or that the white-or-blue dress told us what side of the brain you use—but people of all genders have something to fear from an approaching stranger.
While women are known to be more afraid of being approached, it’s men who are more often the victims of violent crime. Indeed, if a stranger is running toward us, we all have reason to remain cautious.