This Simple Optical Illusion Could Shed Light On How The Brain Interprets Information

Duck duck... rabbit? University of Alberta

Josh Davis 07 Mar 2018, 21:18

It’s an optical illusion that we are all probably familiar with. When you look at the image, do you see a duck or a rabbit?

As soon as someone says one or the other, your brain tends to flip it so you see whichever animal they have just said. Curiously, though, when the same image is displayed side by side, it is very difficult for our brain to see both a duck and a rabbit at the same time.  

Yet as soon as someone suggests “imagine a duck eating a rabbit”, something happens. When prompted, your brain can suddenly picture both the duck and the rabbit together, whereas before it couldn’t.

“Your brain sort of zooms out and can see the big picture when the images are put into context with one another,” explains Kyle Mathewson, author of the study published in the journal Perception, in a statement.

Another interesting point with the research is the wording that is used to prompt participants to view the images in a certain way.

Mathewson tried different phrases to see if it would have an impact on whether or not people are able to see both the rabbit and the duck at the same time. But while saying “duck eats rabbits” was successful in being able to do this, a simpler and less vivid phrase such as “imagine a duck beside a rabbit” did not.

The researcher thinks that the simpler, more neutral wording was unable to help the participants see both animals at the same time because there is no cue as to which image should be the duck and which should be the rabbit. The brain needs a prompt to disambiguate the scene, to know which is which.  

While this might seem fairly removed and unrelated to our day to day lives, the psychology behind it has some fascinating implications for us.    

“This study also demonstrates that we can control the brain's way of interpreting information with just a few words or with an image,” Mathewson continues. “We should all be mindful of that when, for example, we're reading a news story. We're often interpreting and understanding information the way we want to see it.”

And in a world in which information and news is spun and spread more rapidly than ever before, keeping this in mind could not be more prescient.

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