The figure in the image can appear to be a young woman or an old woman.
Media Licence:
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 

Illusion Credit

Anonymous illustrator in late 19th century Germany. William Ely Hill (1887 - 1962), a British cartoonist, produced a later, well-known version.

Instructions

If you see the young woman: look at the young woman's chin and thinnk of it as a large nose, and look at the young woman's ear and think of it as an eye. If you see the old woman: look at the old woman's nose, and think of it as the left cheek of a face looking away from you, and look at the old woman's eye and think of it as an ear on a face looking away from you. 

Effect

You should experience a 'Gestalt switch' between seeing the image as an old woman or a young woman. 

The figure in the image can appear to be a young woman or an old woman.
Media Licence:
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 

Illusion Credit

Anonymous illustrator in late 19th century Germany. William Ely Hill (1887 - 1962), a British cartoonist, produced a later, well-known version.
  • Young Woman or Old Woman
    The figure in the image can appear to be a young woman or an old woman.
    Media Licence:
    Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 

The Young Woman, Old Woman Ambiguous Figure (also known as My Wife and My Mother in Law) was created by an anonymous illustrator in late 19th century Germany, and reproduced on a postcard. William Ely Hill (1887 - 1962), a British cartoonist, produced a later, well-known version. The later, well-known version, was first published in the magazine Puck, in 1915.

The Young Woman, Old Woman Ambiguous Figure belongs in a large class of illusions where a two-dimensional figure, or three-dimensional object can be seen in two or more sharply distinct ways. There are many example of ambiguous figures which you can search for in this illusions index.

There is some controversy over how the Young Woman, Old Woman Ambiguous Figure works. It is generally agreed that the retinal image is constant when experiencing the illusion, but what is not agreed is whether the visual experience of the figure changes when the perspectival switch takes place between seeing the young woman versus the old woman, or whether the experience itself does not change, and it is some post-experiential belief, judgment, or other mental process which changes. The Young Woman, Old Woman, among other ambiguous figures, has been cited in debates over this issue (Silins 2015: §2.4).

This issue is intertwined with more general questions about the modularity of mind and cognitive penetration. To explain: on the hypothesis that the mind is modular, a mental module is a kind of semi-independent department of the mind which deals with particular types of inputs, and gives particular types of outputs, and whose inner workings are not accessible to the conscious awareness of the person—all one can get access to are the relevant outputs. So, in the case of visual illusions, for example, a standard way of explaining why the illusion persists even though one knows that one is experiencing an illusion is that the module, or modules, which constitute the visual system are ‘cognitively impenetrable’ to some degree—i.e. their inner workings and outputs cannot be influenced by conscious awareness. It is still an open question regarding the extent to which perceptual modules are cognitively impenetrable, and the Young Woman, Old Woman belongs in a large class of illusions which are employed in debates to try and close that question. One way in which ambiguous figures like the Young Woman, Old Woman might support the claim that visual processing is impenetrable to a significant degree is that the Gestalt switch is hard to control – often one will see the Young Woman, Old Woman one way or another even if one is trying to see it the other way. Macpherson discusses this phenomenon and its implications in her 2012 paper. Further, there is some evidence from neuroscience that, for at least some ambiguous figures, there are significant changes in early-stage visual processing in the brain when the Gestalt switch is taking place, which might support the hypothesis that Gestalt switches in general are changes in the experience itself rather than in downstream mental processes like beliefs about that experience (see Kornmeier & Bach 2006, 2012).

Finally, ambiguous figures like the Young Woman, Old Woman have been cited in debates about whether the nature of experience can be fully accounted for by appealing only to its representational content. Philosophers and other cognitive scientists distinguish between the phenomenal character of an experience—i.e. what it is like for a conscious subject to undergo that experience – and its representational content—i.e. what the experience is about. Some philosophers, known as ‘representationalists’ argue that the phenomenal character of experience can be accounted for fully in terms of the representational content of experience. One motivation for this argument is that representational content seems easier to ‘naturalise’—i.e. for its nature to be explained in purely materialist terms by appealing solely to physical entities like brain states. Phenomenal character, on the other hand, seems much more resistant to attempts to naturalise it. But if phenomenal character can be fully accounted for in representationalist terms, then this would make the naturalising of phenomenal character seem much more tractable. And, ambiguous figures are among the key examples discussed in debates about whether phenomenal character can be fully accounted for in representationalist terms. For example, Macpherson (2006) has argued that some changes in phenomenal character that occur when experiencing some ambiguous figures cannot be explained in naturalistic, representationalist terms. Macpherson’s 2006 paper provides an overview of the general debate and its many moving parts.

References

Hill, W. E. 1915. My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. Puck. Puck Press.

Kornmeier, J. and Bach, M., 2005. The Necker cube—an ambiguous figure disambiguated in early visual processing. Vision Research, 45(8), pp.955-960.

Kornmeier, J. and Bach, M., 2012. Ambiguous figures–what happens in the brain when perception changes but not the stimulus. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.

Necker, L.A., 1832. Observations on some remarkable optical phaenomena seen in Switzerland; and on an optical phaenomenon which occurs on viewing a figure of a crystal or geometrical solid. London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science.

Silins, N., 2015. Perceptual Experience and Perceptual Justification. In: Zalta, E. N., ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University.

Macpherson, F., 2006. Ambiguous figures and the content of experience. Noûs 40 (1):82-117.

Macpherson, F., 2012. Cognitive penetration of colour experience: Rethinking the issue in light of an indirect mechanism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 84(1), pp.24-62.

How To Cite This Article

Author and Citation Info

Please cite this article as follows:

Donaldson, J. (July 2017), "The Young/Old Woman Ambiguous Figure" in F. Macpherson (ed.), The Illusions Index. Retrieved from http://www.illusionsindex.org/i/young-woman-or-old-woman.

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This article is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC_SA 4.0)

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