The McCollough effect is a remarkable illusion because it is long-lasting. McCollough originally reported that these aftereffects may last for an hour or more. They can last much longer than that, however. Jones and Holding (1975) found that 15 minutes of induction can lead to an effect lasting 3 months.

The effect is different from colored afterimages, which appear superimposed on whatever is seen and which are quite brief. It depends on retinal orientation (tilting the head by 45 degrees makes the colors in the above example disappear; tilting the head by 90 degrees makes the colors reappear such that the gravitationally vertical grating now looks green), and because inducing the effect with one eye leads to no effect being seen with the other eye. However, there is some evidence of binocular interactions.

Any aftereffect requires a period of induction (or adaptation) with an induction stimulus (or, in the case of the McCollough effect, induction stimuli). It then requires a test stimulus on which the aftereffect can be seen. In the McCollough effect as described above, the induction stimuli are the red horizontal grating and the green vertical grating. A typical test stimulus might show adjacent patches of black-and-white vertical and horizontal gratings (as above). The McCollough-effect colors are less saturated than the induction colors.

The induction stimuli can have any different colors. The effect is strongest, however, when the colors are complementary, such as red and green, and blue and orange. A related version of the McCollough effect also occurs with a single color and orientation. For example, induction with only a red horizontal grating makes a black-and-white horizontal test grating appear greenish whereas a black-and-white vertical test grating appears colorless (although there is some argument about that). Stromeyer (1978) called these non-redundant effects. According to him, the classic effect with induction from two different orientations and colors simply makes the illusory colors more noticeable via contrast.

The effect is specific to the region of the retina that is exposed to the induction stimuli. This has been shown by inducing opposite effects in adjacent regions of the retina (i.e., from one region of the retina verticals appear pink and horizontals appear greenish; from an adjacent region of the retina, verticals appear greenish and horizontals appear pink). Nevertheless, if a small region of the retina is exposed to the induction stimuli, and the test contours run through this region, the effect spreads along those test contours. Of course, if the induced area is in the fovea (central vision) and the eyes are allowed to move, then the effect will appear everywhere in the visual scene visited by the fovea.

The effect is also optimal when the thickness of the bars in the induction stimulus matches that of those in the test stimulus (i.e., the effect is tuned, albeit broadly, to spatial frequency). This property led to non-redundant effects being reported by people who had used computer monitors with uniformly colored phosphors to do word processing. These monitors were popular in the 1980's, and commonly showed text as green on black. People noticed later when reading text of the same spatial frequency, in a book say, that it looked pink. Also a horizontal grating of the same spatial frequency as the horizontal lines of the induction text (such as the horizontal stripes on the letters "IBM" on the envelope for early floppy disks) looked pink.

A variety of similar aftereffects have been discovered not only between pattern and color contingencies, but between movement/color, spatial frequency/color and other relationships. All such effects may be referred to as McCollough Effects or MEs.