Ambiguous images

Yesterday I did a bit of research for my Bilingualism class with a couple of classmates. It was the first time I’d done this kind of research so it was quite exciting.

The aim was to find out whether bilinguals were faster than monolinguals at seeing alternative interpretations of images like the ones below. The ability to switch between languages and to ignore irrelevant information is thought to be more developed in bilinguals.

We asked students and staff in the university, which was easier than going into town to try to find willing participants. Most of the people we asked were willing to help, which probably wouldn’t be the case in town.

We did find that the bilinguals were faster to see the two versions of the images, though nobody was able to see the second interpretation of the first image without clues. I saw a cowboy straight away, but it took me ages to see an old man, which some people saw as an old woman. Once you can see both versions, they seem so obvious that you wonder how you couldn’t see them at first. One person suggested that being left handed might also make you quicker to see the different versions of the images.

Here are the images we used:

Ambiguous images

What can you see for each one?

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This entry was posted in Bilingualism, Linguistics.

19 Responses to Ambiguous images

  1. peter j. franke says:

    1: cowboy; 2: old man and mouse (or is it a rat?); 3: indian face and man shinbing with a lamp. This all at first sight. I grew up three lingual…

  2. Rick says:

    For 1, a man, ambiguously a cowboy or an old man but only one interpretation. Is it that the lower black part can be interpreted as either a beard or some sort of vest/jacket, or is there a more global reinterpretation that I’m missing?

    For 2, I actually see three figures: a bald man with glasses and a prominent nose, a chick with bulging eyes (the man’s nose and upper lip as a bill), and a bit later the rodent.

    For 3, I only saw the face until the figure/ground ambiguity was pointed out.

  3. rek says:

    We did this in my Korean class, but I was already familiar with the images so the point of the lesson was somewhat lost on me.

  4. Ken Gonzales says:

    I’m left handed and bilingual.

    I recognized these things after about one or two minutes …

    (1) an old woman with a big nose that (i think) almost touches the chest. then the man.

    (2) the man. then the rat.

    (3) the man. then the eskimo boy …

  5. TJ says:

    I agree with Ken in what he saw. But mainly, the first and the third are old photos that I saw long time ago so I know what the yare, but the second one is new to me. I spent no more than 10 seconds to figure out the two “hidden” pictures.

    I’m left handed and bilingual too.

  6. Helena says:

    1 – an old lady

    2 – a mouse

    3 – the face of a greek /mediterranean man who’s probably sun bathing (because of the nose shape)

  7. Helena says:

    ps – after reading the other responses I just realized that image 3 could also be an eskimo.

  8. xarxa says:

    i got all of them quickly enough apart from the young woman in the first one! it took me ages to see it. haha, itll probably turn out that there is no young woman in that one, but i can see her, anyway

  9. Good Information, thanks !

  10. TJ says:

    I think part of these illusions were used in psychology for some sort of personality analysis.

  11. James P says:

    picture (1) Old man, elegant woman looking away
    picture (2) mouse, old man in specs
    picture (3) eskimo, man in some sort of white suit

    I´m ambidextrous (slightly left dominant) and though not technically bilingual (since I didn´t grow up with two languages) I speak Spanish to a fairly high C2 level and it´s my main language (though I´m still english dominant).

  12. expateek says:

    I’m ambidextrous, and enjoy languages (English 1st, French quite good, Afrikaans at about 12-year-old level, just beginning Polish).

    I could see easily the elegant lady, but had to force myself to see the cowboy. It gets easier every time I look at it.

    Saw the man with glasses but couldn’t see mouse without the hint.

    Saw Native American face, then eskimo after some work.

    I find these things make me kind of dizzy!

  13. James P says:

    of course it was a typo for (3) should read native american and man in white suit.

  14. Amy says:

    I’m left-handed and speak both Japanese and Spanish at a middle-school level. I saw the Eskimo and the Native American men at once in the third picture. The first one, with the old cowboy with the big head and the other cowboy looking away (I know people keep saying they see one of them as a woman, but they both look distinctly male to me) took me about ten seconds, and the middle one took me closer to twenty before I could see the mouse. Funny – now I can’t see the Roald Dahl style man as easily.

  15. Aidan says:

    I grew with one language but I am fluent in Dutch and proficient in several other languages. I only see old man, old man, indian even with the clues.

  16. James P says:

    this post raises the question of what we mean by bilingualism. There is clearly a big difference between someone with A-level french and someone brought up with three languages all of which they speak to educated native level.

    A few years of spanish or whatever a couple hours a week is not going to change the “brain structure” (metaphor). Mastering two or more languages, either as a child or an adult might well do. I have actually had the feeling of “paradigm shift” with languages, being unable to understand what someone was saying in English as I was listening for Spanish and vice versa (though here I am normally expecting Spanish). It is the same feeling as seeing the mouse and then the old man…

  17. Vacker says:

    This web page shows two alternatives to the first image (from the left) as well as discusses the psychology behind the illusion.

    The version featured here is the most recent and titled “Husband and Father-in-Law.” Though, it is based on earlier images that were unambiguously female. Maybe, this explains why the ambiguity with the subjects’ gender.

    This web site features the earlier versions, but not the redesign featured here.

  18. James P says:

    I´ve been watching too many period films set in Mexico where the women wear that sort of hat!”

  19. Uszi says:

    Oh my!. Does it really have something to do?. I’m left-handed/ambidextrous, dislexic and speak 6 languages. It took me 2 seconds to discover the “hidden” images.