Mental images can be ambiguous: Reconstruals and reference-frame reversals

Mary A. Peterson, John F. Kihlstrom, Patricia M. Rose, Martha L. Glisky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Philosophers and psychologists have debated whether or not mental images of ambiguous-figures are reversible as pictures of such figures are. Previously, empirical evidence both pro (Finke, Pinker, & Farah, 1989) and con (Chambers & Reisberg, 1985) has been obtained. In a series of four experiments, we identify the conditions under which images of classic ambiguous figures like the duck/rabbit and the snail/elephant are reversible. We distinguish between two types of reversal: those that entail a change in reference-frame specification as well as a reconstrual of image components (reference-frame realignments) and those that entail reconstruals only (reconstruals). We show that reference-frame realignments can occur in imagery, particularly if observers are given an explicit or an implicit suggestion; and that reconstruals of images occur commonly, regardless of experimental conditions. In addition, we show that images constructed from good parts are more likely to reverse than images constructed from poor parts. On the basis of these results, we propose a functional organization of shape memory that is consistent with shape -recognition findings as well as with our reversal findings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)107-123
Number of pages17
JournalMemory & Cognition
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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