What do you see when you look at this image of the artist Joseph Jastrow, published in 1899 in Popular Science Monthly?
Credit: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty
You may be familiar with an optical illusion of the nineteenth century or, more precisely, with an "ambiguous image" of a rabbit that looks like a duck that looks like a rabbit. Published for the first time in 1892 by a German humor magazine, the figure became popular after the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used it to illustrate two different ways of seeing. You can interpret the image as a duck or a rabbit, but not for both animals at the same time.
It becomes more complicated if you place two copies of the illusion side by side. You are likely to see two ducks. Or maybe two rabbits. In fact, about half of people can not see a rabbit and a duck at first sight, according to Kyle Mathewson, a neuroscientist at the University of Alberta, in Canada. To visualize one of each species at the same time, you have to give your brain more information to work on, for example, telling yourself to imagine a duck eating a rabbit.
Watch it now? It turns out that, when it comes to distinguishing between two ways of seeing identical images, context is vital, according to Mathewson's new study. [The Most Amazing Optical Illusions (and How They Work)]
"His brain moves away and he can see the big picture when the images are put in context with each other," Mathewson, an assistant professor in the school's psychology department, said in a statement.
The syntax plays a role, too. The study, which was published online Feb. 5 in the journal Perception, found that simpler phrases, such as "Imagine a duck next to a rabbit," do not have the same effect, that is, because they do not tell your brain what the figure is the duck and what the rabbit is.
"What we discovered is that we have to find a way to eliminate the ambiguity of the scene, to allow the brain to distinguish between two alternatives," said Mathewson.
The study also demonstrates the ease with which our brains interpret information with only some textual or visual cues, a fact that we must remain cautious in this era of unbridled disinformation, Mathewson said.
"We should all be aware of that when, for example, we are reading a story," he added. "We often interpret and understand information the way we want to see it."
Originally published in Live Science.