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Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Mar 22;6:51. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00051. eCollection 2012.

Ambiguous figures - what happens in the brain when perception changes but not the stimulus.

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  • 1Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health Freiburg, Germany.


During observation of ambiguous figures our perception reverses spontaneously although the visual information stays unchanged. Research on this phenomenon so far suffered from the difficulty to determine the instant of the endogenous reversals with sufficient temporal precision. A novel experimental paradigm with discontinuous stimulus presentation improved on previous temporal estimates of the reversal event by a factor of three. It revealed that disambiguation of ambiguous visual information takes roughly 50 ms or two loops of recurrent neural activity. Further, the decision about the perceptual outcome has taken place at least 340 ms before the observer is able to indicate the consciously perceived reversal manually. We provide a short review about physiological studies on multistable perception with a focus on electrophysiological data. We further present a new perspective on multistable perception that can easily integrate previous apparently contradicting explanatory approaches. Finally we propose possible extensions toward other research fields where ambiguous figure perception may be useful as an investigative tool.


EEG/ERP; Necker cube; ambiguous figures; event-related potentials; multistable perception; old/young woman; reversal negativity; reversal positivity

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