Ambiguous images are single visual forms that can resolve into more than one distinct image. In 1892, the German humor magazine Fliegende Blätter published one of the earliest and probably most familiar of these ambiguous images—the famous “rabbit-duck” image. The simple line illustration, depending on how you look at it, can either be perceived as a duck looking toward the left, or a rabbit facing the right. Ambiguous images can induce the phenomenon of “multi-stable perception,” in which a single image can lead to multiple, stable interpretations. The image is both a rabbit and a duck, or in the case of the Rubin’s vase, it is both a vase, and two elderly gentlemen facing each other, or in the “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” drawing from a 1888 German postcard, the image is both a young woman facing away, and an older lady facing toward the viewer.
How we see images has to do with the way we process visual information. We determine the basic information about what we’re seeing with what is known as early vision. Higher level vision allows us to classify what we’re seeing as an individual of a type—we know we’re seeing a face, and high level vision allows us to recognize the face as one of our friends. But it’s in the mid-level vision that these ambiguous images play around with our perceptions. In the case of the rabbit-duck image, early vision leads us to take in the various parts—the long, somewhat parallel appendages protruding from the left side of the oval (which could be a head); the dark, semi-round shape that could be an eye. But after taking in the information with early vision, we move to mid-level vision, in which we decide that we’re either seeing a rabbit or a duck. Then, in the higher level vision, we fill in all the details that support our perception—the shading of the image turns into either feathers or fur, and so on.
It is the “multi-stable perception” of these ambiguous images that’s so interesting. Based on where our mid-level vision takes us, the image resolves into a coherent whole, but if we back up, and allow our perception to be taken in the other direction, an entirely new coherent whole resolves for us. Based on the information we gather in the early vision stage, we can go in different directions, each of which is supported by what we see early on. There’s no “right” answer to the question: “duck” or “rabbit?” And as external factors play into our perception, we are more likely to see one or the other—studies have shown that around Easter, more people see the rabbit in the image, and the duck is more visible when the season turns to autumn.
As we as a community move through this coronavirus pandemic, I think the situation is an ambiguous image that illustrates multi-stable perception. Not every image is ambiguous, but I think this one is. Here’s what I mean: there’s a lot of information out there—some reputable, some not so much—that we’re trying to resolve into a coherent image, like we would with early vision. And, once we’ve “seen” what we perceive to be the truth of things, we go about trying to fill in the details that support the image we see—that’s the higher level vision. But we could reasonably go in different directions in that mid-vision stage. We could perceive the situation as a bunch of over-blown fear-mongering, an insidious ploy to undermine our personal freedoms. Or we could perceive the situation as a serious threat to public health and safety, one in which we all need to accept restrictions for the “greater good.” The situation is a rabbit to some, and a duck to others.
Out in the general public, there’s not much of a response to make to the varying perceptions—all those who feel the situation is a duck just have to do what they need to do to get by when they encounter those who see it as a rabbit. We can be frustrated with the way those rabbit people are acting, but there’s not a lot we can do about their position. It’s socially acceptable to be ticked off at them, because there’s no cultural mandate that requires duck people to love rabbit people. Rabbit people can rant and rave about the insanity of the duck position all they want, because it’s not a societal expectation that they get along. They can be as hurtful as they want to each other.
But what about when rabbit people and duck people share life in God’s family? In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul writes: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” Even though I doubt he would have put it this way, Paul is not denying that there are ambiguous images which can lead to multi-stable perception—that there are situation that we might legitimately see differently. Diversity is part of the human experience, and unity doesn’t imply uniformity. Our difficulty is that we are often frustrated with the way rabbit people don’t see the duck, and we may have this nagging desire to impose our vision on them without really trying to see things the way they do.
Each of us will be convinced of the legitimacy of our perceptions. Those perceptions are inevitably based on the information we perceive, which has coalesced into an image that makes sense to us. And, once that image makes sense—has resolved into something we recognize—then we often do a pretty good job of discounting the information that points us in another direction. Once the protruding appendages have resolved into a rabbit’s ears, then they aren’t going to look like a duck’s bill at all—even if someone else is convinced of that alternative perspective. And I feel like I need to make this point: we’re always dealing with perceptions. It’s not the way we like to think of it—we understand that the way other people see things is based on perception, but the way we see things is factual, totally evidence-based, and really the way things are. We aren’t as comfortable with the fact that we take facts—information—and we process them, and interpret them, and ultimately come to a perception of what we’re seeing. And everyone is doing it, and in some cases, the image is just as likely to be a rabbit as it is a duck.
So what does a church full of duck people and rabbit people do? What do we do when we’ve looked at the situation, and taken in the information, and come to significantly different positions? How can we be, as Paul encourages us to be, “one in spirit and of one mind?” I believe empathy has a lot to do with it. Now, empathy can only go so far—while we may see some of what the other person sees, and perhaps feel some of what they feel, we cannot actually experience what they experience. So there will always be something unique about all of us, which includes our perceptions. But consider the landscape created by empathy, as opposed to the one created by stubborn contention: We recognize that we all see things differently—that some of us see a rabbit, and others see a duck. But since this is a “multi-stable image” that can be seen as both, and not as only one or the other, we actually have the potential to come a little closer to understanding where that other person is coming from, and maybe why they see things the way they do. We don’t have to convince them that they need to see the rabbit when they see the duck, but if we can see the duck they are seeing, maybe they will see the rabbit on our behalf.
Empathy draws us together, while rigid entrenchment separates us. Insisting on the legitimacy of our personal perspective (and it’s all about perspective) does little to convince those who disagree to come around. This doesn’t mean our perspectives are not legitimate, it just means that when it comes to following the directives of Scripture, it may not really matter. What matters is that we care for each other. After encouraging us to be “one in spirit and of one mind,” Paul says this: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” I won’t pretend that there are simple answers, or that the things that are selfishly ambitious or vainly conceited are readily apparent. We can do a good job of convincing ourselves that getting our sisters and brothers to see the duck and not the rabbit is a pretty loving thing. What I am saying is that we need to be careful about the way we are “right.” We need to understand that our “correct” perception—particularly the one we get dogmatic about—may actually alienate and hurt those we are supposed to value above ourselves. And if we’ve hurt others in our attempt to argue the rightness of our vision, we’ve spent a dollar to save a dime.
It may be tough, particularly since we’ve already gotten pretty set in our perception, but I think we may need to get closer to seeing the rabbit when we’re convinced the image is a duck. We need to try to discern how much of our perception is fueled by facts, and how much is created by our ego and our unwillingness to walk back from our stated position. Looking to the interests of others means that even when we’re convinced our perception is accurate—that the image is a rabbit and not a duck—we can set that “rightness” aside for the sake of others. We don’t have to rebuild the world according to our perceptions. It means we can respect those who see a different image than we see, and perhaps even walk a little in their shoes, and see a little with their eyes. We can get closer to each other instead of further apart. We can make space for both ducks and rabbits in our perception.