Myself when I look at the duck-rabbit image, I see a duck if focus on the left (i.e. the beak) or a rabbit if I focus on the right (the nose).

enter image description here

Is this how it works for most people, i.e. is the foveal shift what drives the change in interpretation? (I obviously meant to ask if there's an empirical study on this.) If so, is the duck-rabbit a part of a wider class of illusions that rely on smaller or larger changes in what's foveated?


1 Answer 1


Short answer
Ambiguous figures do not necessarily depend on focus, they do depend on attention though.

The figure you provide is huge. From a standard face-to-monitor distance of a meter or so, one indeed needs to scan the image. Under these conditions I agree with you, in that the perceived animal changes when you change focus. The ears become a bill when you focus on that part and you see a duck. Reversely, when you focus on the head, you see a bunny.

However, below I've pasted a smaller version of it (Fig. 1). If it is still too big take some more distance from your monitor and look at the center. You'll notice it will freely flip-flop between critters, also without shifting your gaze. I found another version depicted in Fig. 2. that, in my case, even more smoothly transitions from duck to rabbit and vice versa. Hence, foveal focus is not key.

Ambiguous images are not truly illusions; Many illusions rely on unconscious inferences in perception, while ambiguous figures illustrate the role of expectations, world-knowledge, and the direction of attention. For example, children tested on Easter Sunday are more likely to see the figure as a rabbit; if tested on a Sunday in October, they tend to see it as a duck or similar bird (source: Kihlstrom, University of California, Berkeley, see references there). Hence, by shifting your attention from one part to another, you may indeed evoke a flip flop and although this i medited by visual input and hence needs the retina, it nonetheless is a process induced by shifting your attention and hence a top-down process. Your suggestion of a foveal dependence would imply a bottom-up effect. It is not.

enter image description here
Fig. 1. Rabbit/duck ambiguity. Taken from OP above, source unknown

Fig. 2. Animated version of the ambiguous rabbit/duck figure. source: Tom van der Bilt, Nautilus issue 19, 2014

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Interesting. As you said, it could still impact it to a degree. That would make an interesting eye tracking study. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenJeuris especially in combination with brain imaging and button presses when one sees rabbit/duck. You got some money? >__< $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 12:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.