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Explanations > Perception > Gestalt Theory > Multistability

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When we perceive something, we 'fix' it in our minds and see only that item. Then if we subsequently see it as something else, the new image gets fixed.

When we know that something could be one thing or another item, it is difficult for us to see both at the same time. Our perception 'flips' between one 'stable' image and the other.


The 'Necker' cube below may be seen with either square (top right or bottom left) appearing as the front or the back of the cube. Both images may be seen, but we tend to see only one at a time.



You may think that you can see both cubes at the same time, but this is just the mind doing some athletic quick flipping.



The mind likes to fit what we see into known models. Hence when we see the Necker cube image above, even though it is just lines on a two-dimensional surface, we imagine it as a three-dimensional wire cube, because it fits with our internal model of a cube.

The mind does not like uncertainty and will push perception into the closure of seeing something familiar. Hence when we try to see two things at once, our perception system gets nudged into one or other of the two things rather than seeing the two items simultaneously.

A whole class of optical illusions work this way, allowing only one interpretation at a time, leading the mind to flip back and forth.

When we see one thing and then get directed to see it in another way, the mind finds it self in a state of confusion and so quickly decides one way or the other.

We do like to be consistent, and even when there are two or more ways of seeing something, one perception may become dominant, so we see this first every time and find it harder to flip to the alternative view.

In this way we confuse strangers for friends, either by sight or by the sound of their voice.

So what?

To change a person's perception of something, show them another way of seeing it. When they get the alternative way, work to strengthen this perception and weaken the power of the alternative view.

See also

Common Fate, Reframing, Confusion principle, Closure principle


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