How things appear to roll “uphill”

There are some places where the land is shaped in such a way that it can sometimes appear that things are going uphill when they are really going down. Some people attribute this type of activity to paranormal causes.

Jason Hoffman (Jason.Hoffman@nopc.jaxx.com) explains it this way:

“This was explained very simply on a TV show several years back. There is a place known as “Gravity Hill” where the road is on a slight decline. But the trees on the side of the road, instead of being vertical, lean down the hill. So that if you are standing sideways on the road, with the down side to your left, the trees `should’ appear to lean to the right, but actually lean to the left. This makes the downward side of the hill seem to be the up side of the hill. The grade is so slight that it throws off your balance, so you become confused.

“This has been illustrated in fun houses at amusement parks…’The Leaning Room’. After being in the room for a minute, your natural sense of balance tries to correct itself. Then, you try to roll a ball down some parallel bars, but the ball rolls up instead.”

Here is another explanation by Paul Johnson (paj@gec-mrc.co.uk):

“The brain uses a collection of techniques for deciding which way is up. The balancing organs in the inner ears only work when you stand still, so for most purposes the brain uses visual rules-of-thumb.

“Amongst these are:

1. The ground is, on average, horizontal.
2. Walls are vertical.

“So these mystery spots are usually on broad, empty plains with a slight slope. The slope isn’t noticable, and rule 1 is applied by the brain to get a wrong answer for the horizontal. Hence any slight lessening of the slope looks like a slight upward rise on a flat plain, even though it is actually still downhill. So things rolling down the slope look like they are rolling uphill.

“Sometimes locals exploit rule 2 by putting up buildings that conform to the visual horizontal instead of the actual one. This reinforces the illusion quite strongly.

“If you are ever shown one of these spots, check a map with contour lines drawn on to find out how flat it really is.”

The following is an excerpt from the Physics FAQ, copyright PEG.  I am reproducing it here for preservation’s sake, as the original is quite old and may disappear in time from the web.  You can find the original here: http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/roll-uphill.html

Updated May 1998 by PEG.
Original by Philip Gibbs 1996.

I know a place where things seem to roll uphill.  How does it work?

Sometimes you may find or hear of a mysterious place where objects can apparently roll uphill.  This is a remarkably common illusion that is found in numerous locations around the world.  Usually it is a stretch of road in a hilly area where the level horizon is obscured.  Objects such as trees and walls that normally provide visual clues to the true vertical, may be leaning slightly.  This creates an optical illusion making a slight downhill look like an uphill slope.  Objects may appear to roll uphill.  Sometimes rivers even seem to flow against gravity.

Spots where the illusion is especially powerful often become tourist attractions.  Tour guides may like to claim that the effect is a mystery or that it is due to magnetic or gravitational anomalies or even that it is a paranormal phenomenon that science cannot explain.  This is not true of course.  Natural anomalies can only be detected with sensitive equipment and cannot account for these places but science can easily explain them as optical illusions.

There are several things that enable us to sense which way is up.  The balance mechanism in our inner ears is one system we have, but visual clues are also important and can be overriding.  If the horizon cannot be seen or is not level, then we may be fooled by objects that we expect to be vertical but that really are not.  False perspective might also play a role.  If a line of trees get larger or smaller with distance away, our sense of perspective is thrown off.  Objects far away may seem smaller or larger than they really are.

People often overestimate the angle of a slope.  If you are standing on a slope of 1 degrees it will seem like a slope of 5 degrees and if you stand on a slope of 5 degrees it may seem like you are on a slope of 30 degrees.  Because of this effect the anti-gravity illusion can seem stronger than it should be even when you know the cause.

Even when the true cause is understood it can be difficult to believe.  In some cases the sea horizon is partly visible and it seems incredible that the effect can be an illusion.  If you think there is a magnetic anomaly just use two plumb lines, one made of iron and one of stone.  They would hang at different angles if a strong magnetic field was acting horizontally.  In fact magnetic anomalies are never that strong and are never the cause as is easily shown.

However, it is not always easy to demonstrate that a slope that appears to go uphill is really going downhill.  Plumb lines and spirit levels cannot be relied on if you think there is a gravitational anomaly.  If the slope runs parallel to a seaview it would be possible to compare a plumb line with the horizon.  Otherwise the only reliable way of determining the true horizontal is by careful surveying.  If a good topographical map of the area is available it may be sufficient to show which way the land is really sloping.  The results will confirm the illusion.  Gravitational anomalies are always very small.  In any case, if there was a gravitational anomaly you should wonder how you would notice it.  There would be an equal effect on your sense of balance as there is on any object.  The anomaly would not be apparent unless there was a clear view of the sea behind the slope, which there never is.

A search on the web turned up a surprising number of examples of this illusion.  Most are natural while others have been constructed in theme parks.  Below is an incomplete list of the natural ones for those who want to visit.  Many thanks to those who have sent more site details for this list.  Do check locations are correct before making a long journey and remember that it may be dangerous or illegal to stop or reverse your car on slip roads and bends!

  • Mystery Spot Road, off Branciforte Dr.  Santa Cruz, CA, USA. A spot 50m in diameter in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains
  • Mystery Spot, Putney Road, Benzie County, Michigan, USA.
  • Gravity Hill, Northwest Baltimore County, USA. along a public road that ran through the Soldier’s Delight environmental area.
  • Gravity Hill, Mooresville, Southwest Indianapolis, USA. Located off SR 42 on the South side of Mooresville.
  • Gravity Road, Ewing Road exit ramp off Route 208, Franklin Lakes, USA.
  • Mystery Hill, Blowing Rock, hwy 321, Carolina, USA.
  • Confusion Hill, Idelwild Park, Ligonier, Pennsylvania, USA.
  • Gravity Hill, off of State Route 96 just south of New Paris, Bedford County, Pennsylvania, USA.
  • Gravity Hill (near White’s Hill) , just South of Rennick Road, on County Truck U, South of Shullsburg, in LaFayette County, Wisconsin, USA
  • Oregon Vortex, near Gold-Hill, Grants Pass, Oregon, USA.
  • Spook Hill, North Wales Drive, North Avenue, Lake Wales, Florida, USA.
  • Spook Hill, Gapland Road just outside Burkittsville, Gapland (Frederick County), Maryland, USA.
  • Magnetic Hill, Near Neepawa in Manitoba, Canada.
  • Magnetic Hill, just off the Trans Canada highway, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
  • Gravity Hill, on McKee Rd. just before Ledgeview Golf Course in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada.
  • Electric Brae, on the A719, Near Croy Bay, South of Ayr, Ayeshire, Scotland.
  • Anti-Gravity Hill, Straws Lane Road, Wood-End, Near hanging rock, Victoria, Australia
  • Morgan Lewis Hill, St Andrew, Barbados.
  • Hill South of Rome, in Colli Albani, near Frascati, Italy.
  • Malveira da Serra, on N247 coast road West of Lisbon, Portugal
  • Mount Penteli, on a road to Mount Penteli, Athens, Greece
  • Mount Halla, on the 1.100 highway a few miles south of the airport, near Mount Halla, on the island of Cheju Do, South Korea

References:

“Skeptical Inquirer”, Vol 16, No. 1, 1991; an article about the illusion at Spook Hill.

“Seeing Is Believing?  Haunted Shacks, Mystery Spots, and Other Delightful Phenomena” by Chris Banta

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