This week I was reading a scientific article Reversing how to think about ambiguous figure reversals of Mitroff, Sobel & Gopnik on the neural processes of interpretation of ambiguous figures. The introduction of the article brings us: Every view of our visual world gives rise to an infinite number of interpretations. Only through a series of inferential processes do we perceive a consistent and stable environment. These inferences occur so smoothly that they are rarely noticed. However, certain stimuli can create problems for the visual system and in so doing allow for a glimpse into the inferential processes. One such class of stimuli is ambiguous figures – single images that can give rise to multiple interpretations. For example, if you look at Figure 1, your percept should occasionally reverse – alternating between a ‘young’ and a ‘old’ woman (Mitroff et al., in press).
At that point, I stopped reading the article. I closed my eyes, and I, isolating me from the outside world, thought: What exactly do we see when we look at a image of Richard Armitage? Applying the definition of Mitroff et al. An ambiguous image (actually complex), a stimulus which can give rise to multiple interpretations of the actor. In psychology, the study of perception is very important because people’s behavior is based on their interpretation of reality, not reality itself.
Traditionally there have been two competing theories of how one’s interpretation of an ambiguous figure reverses, but this issue remains, at best, ambiguous. According to the satiartion theory (a bottom-up explanation)ambiguous figures reversals occur through a process analogous to neuronal fatigue when perciving color afterimages. If you stare for a green color patch, and then shift your gaze to a white patch, you will perceive red. The initial exposure to green fatigues the filiring"green neurons" and when you shift to a white patch, the "red neurons" which are not fatigued, dominate (Mitroff et al. In press).
Figure 2. Richard Armitage for Fault magazine.
Thus, extnding this analogy, perceiving a young woman in Figure 1 will eventually fatigue the neurons that represent the "young"interpretation, giving way to the percept of the old woman. Alternatively, a cognitive theory (a top-down explanation) suggests that a reversal can occur only if: a) an observer knows the figure is ambiguous, b) knows the two specific interpretations of the figure,and c) has the intended to reverse.
To investigate these hypotheses, Mitroff et. al presented the 34 children aged 3 to 5 years old with the ambiguous figures task and ‘metacognitive’ theory of mind tasks (See the article for details). Twelve of 34 (35.3%) children spontaneously reversed the ambiguous figures. Twenty of the remaining 22 children reversed the figures after they were informed of the ambiguity and two failed to make any reversal. Therefore, the results do not support either of the two hypotheses of ambiguous figure reversals. Only a hybrid model that incorporates both bottom-up and top-down contribution can account for these findings (Mitroff et al. In press). However, the results provide crucial piece to an puzzle. First, to reverse an ambiguous figure, informed or otherwise, observers need to possess certain mental representational capacities. Without understanding that a single image can have multiple percepts, observers will perseverate on a single interpretation. Second, to reverse a figure spontaneously, observers must posses additional capabilities, above and beyond understanding that a single image can have more than one percept. Without the ability to reason about multiple representations of more complex, or ‘metacognitive’ manner, it is unlikely that observers will a) infer the ambiguity, b) infer the potential perceptions, and then c) discover the bistability of ambiguous figures (Mitroff et al. In press) . But what is metacognition? Portilho (2009) and other authors define the term as "cognition about cognition", "thinking about thinking" or "knowledge about knowledge itself."
Figure 4. Gnothi seauton, Know thyself. Tattoo Lucas North, character of the series Spooks, British TV, BBC.
So what exactly do we see when looking at a picture of Richard Armitage? As the authors of the article, we do not have enough data to answer this question. Each point of view will give rise to an infinite number of interpretations. However, analysis of our inferential processes can reveal crucial elements of our interpretation of reality.
As in the satiation theory, our process may be dominated by bottom-up mechanisms, once we fatigued our neural network with the interpretation X, we can move to the interpretation Y, using our receivers not fatigued, thus expanding our understanding of the actor (and/or his admirers). Alternatively, top-down mechanism (cognitive theory) may also be involved. When we accept that what we see may have different interpretations, we know two or more specific interpretations and we intend to reverse, we can extend our interpretation of reality. This mechanism is very present in participants of forum discussions, blogs, etc, where different observers discuss their unique and personal interpretations, and thus broaden their mental representational capacities of reality. However, without the acceptance that a single image can have multiple perceptions, observers will persevere in a single interpretation, generally considering their "right" or "true".
Finally, without the ability to reason about yourself, about your own knowledge, beliefs and values, your memories and experiences, without delve into your inner world and undertake the essential journey of self. It is unlikely that observers will infer ambiguity, perceptions potential and stability of different interpretations. As we gain new information about ourselves, our perception changes. Generally, people are afraid to look at theirselves, to see theirselves as they really are, and thus transmute what belongs to the realm of shadows. In general, we project the other what we reject in ourselves, i.e., our shadow, creating a distorted image of reality that surrounds us.
A final aspect to be considered is the fact that the perception of certain aspects related to human characteristics, or even the "construction of perception" of certain human characteristics, can also be socially constituted. Issues of gender, race, nationality, sexuality and others, can also be interfered with by a form of perception that is socially constructed (Barros, 2005). Thus, for example, the way we perceive what "being a man" or "being a woman" is also a social construction, as well as how societies perceive the different ways of experiencing sexuality (Barros, 2005). And within society, there are some who consider themselves guardians of the collective tradition, people who support the status quo without questioning it, and that may disparage or discourage efforts that do not harmonize with their preferences.
The teacher of our group finished reading the article quoting Amit Goswami, "reality" is also a matter of perspective.I open my eyes back to the present moment: young-old-youngold, duck-rabbit-duck-rabbit, Ana Cris-Richard Armitage. The images have not changed, it was that I saw in another manner.
Barros, J. d’Assunção. (2005). Igualdade, desigualdade e diferença: em torno
de três noções. Análise Social, vol. XL (175), 2005, 345-366. Available only in Portuguese.
Mitroff, S. R., Sobel, D. M., & Gopnik, A. (in press). Reversing how to think about ambiguous figure reversals: Spontaneous alternating by uninformed observers. Perception.
Portilho, E. M. L. O desafio de conhecer-se para conhecer. In: PAROLIN, I. (Org.). Sou Professor. A Formação do Professor Formador. Curitiba: Positivo, 2009. Available only in Portuguese.