American psychologist Joseph Jastrow was likely not picturing viral media and the power of the collective internet when he first sketched his famous “duck-rabbit” illusion all the way back in 1899. Jastrow was researching the ability of his study participants to identify not one, but both of the animals. He also wanted to see how easy it was to give suggestions in order to influence people to see it one way or another.
As it turned out, his research was far ahead of his time. People today are still enraptured by this simple sketch that he drew up over 100 years. Jastrow just wanted to study perception, but instead, his image has inspired viewers around the world to look at things in a different way.
The image has found a new life in the age of social media, with its ability to quickly share viral media and messages across the world and with thousands, if not millions of others in seconds. This wasn’t the first time it went viral, of course, but it certainly was the most widespread.
What do you see when you first peer at this rather rudimentary sketch? A rabbit? A duck? Both? Are you easily able to switch between the two in your active consciousness? These are all questions that Jastrow sought the answer to.
As it happens, his study did come to some fascinating conclusions. While a vast majority of these online “tests” as simply bunk meant to confirm the reader preconceived notions, this image happens to be set upon a foundation of fairly solid scientific research.
According to the research, the ability to see both possibilities and switch between the two marks the mind of a creative and curious person. His research was taken a step further more recently by neuroscientist Kyle Mathewson.
Mathewson conducted a similar study to Jastrow’s with his group at the Beckman Institute in Illinois. He found that while some patients were adamant that it was either a rabbit or a duck, select others were able to cognitively switch and understand both images simultaneously.
“We’re allowing people to use higher level processes in a better way, in a new way,” he wrote in the study summary. “So it’s not that their eyes aren’t letting them see, or that your visual system doesn’t let you see a duck beside a rabbit, but that everything you thought about ducks and rabbits before didn’t let you see the duck and the rabbit So we’re giving you a new lens to look at the figures.”
Essentially it boils down to creative thinking. Creativity is generally thought to involve a lot of comparing options. Creative people are more easily able to see multiple possibilities, and in this case, that results in being able to understand the two separate images at the same time.
Of course, there is a huge value in being able to define things and feel concrete about your thoughts on the world. Society needs every different kind of person in order to function as intended, so it’s important to foster all kinds of thinking in growing children.
What do you see when you look at this classic optical illusion? Share your answer in the comments below and start a conversation!
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