Ambiguous figures such as the duck/rabbit above, are figures in which multiple interpretations are possible although the figure itself remains unchanged. Viewers experience the two competing interpretations reversing from one to the other and only one interpretation can be perceived at a time.
I use ambiguous figures as a research tool to see how children conceive (understand) and perceive ambiguity in pictures. This is measured with behavioural and eye-tracking methodologies.
Example of a viewing pattern measured with an eye-tracker. Red indicates long and frequent fixations. This viewer only perceived the "duck" interpretation. Our key findings so far are:
- Children develop a basic understanding that a picture can be ambiguous around the age of 4 years.
- A related development to understanding ambiguities in pictures is understanding ambiguities in language, as in synonyms (e.g., that "bunny" and "rabbit" can refer to the same thing) and homonyms (e.g., that "bat" can be flying mammal in one situation or a piece of sports equipment in another).
- These findings are interesting because they show that children with increasing age can think more flexible in various situations.
- About half a year later, between the ages of 4 and 5, children also begin to perceive ambiguity in pictures (e.g., they can see both the duck and the rabbit interpretation in the left figure above).
- For perceiving ambiguity children need to develop the ability to suppress the perception of their prevalent interpretation (inhibition) and to mentally visualize the interpretations (image generation).
- These findings are interesting because they may give us some insight into the specific processes that we require when we disambiguate visual information.
Wimmer, M. C., & Doherty, M. J. (2011). The development of ambiguous figure perception. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 76(1), 1-130.
Wimmer, M. C., & Doherty, M. J. (2010). Children with autism’s perception and understanding of ambiguous figures: Evidence for pictorial metarepresentation, a research note. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28, 627-641.
Wimmer, M. C., & Doherty, M. J. (2007). Investigating children’s eye-movements: Cause or effect of reversing ambiguous figures? In D. S. Namara & J. G. Trafton (Eds.), Proceedings of the 29th Annual Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1659-1664). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
Doherty, M. J., & Wimmer, M. C. (2005). Children’s understanding of ambiguous figures: Which cognitive developments are necessary to experience reversal? Cognitive Development, 20, 407-421.