This figure by Jastrow in 1899 has been in the centre of many discussions and inquiries in art, design, creativity, perception, psychology, and philosophy. The famous philosopher, Wittgenstein, referred to this figure in his discourse on why entities can have more than one identity, ie multiple existences. Many people even today expect a stable, cut-and-dry and verifiable world and are therefore uncomfortable with such ambiguities in life. The creatives however thrive on them.
Depending on which way you perceive the creature as looking, all the graphics of the figure ralliy around the form of a rabbit (looking to the right) or a duck (looking left). It is exclusively one or the other, and you can switch between the two at will. Why? The best and simplest explanation I have is the way we label parts of the figure. If we label the appendage “ears”, than we have a rabbit, but if we label it “beak”, then we have a duck. This labeling of objects and their parts is, I believe, at the heart of conceptual thinking and primal to the way our perception system works syntactically to make coherent worlds (eg of rabbits or ducks in the case in point).
The ability to label parts of a object and obtain a coherent whole is so powerful that we often do not need all the defining information to make and act on the incomplete.
The above two words has the same centre letter-figure, but it takes little to treat the second as an “A” rather than a “H” because it makes sense. This contextual labeling is the reason why machine reading, let alone language translation is so intractable. Below is a more complex and interesting example from Wired magazine’s (UK June 2010) article on patent litigation, “Apple vs Nokia vs Goole vs HTC vs RIM”:
But the really interesting issue is not so much that we get things correctly labelled (as with pre-school flash cards) but that we can imaginatively label things differently and chart the courses of different outcomes. This is seeing things differently and the critical stuff of creative thinking.