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When an ambiguous stimulus is viewed for a prolonged time, perception alternates between the different possible interpretations of the stimulus. The alternations seem haphazard, but closer inspection of their dynamics reveals systematic properties in many bistable phenomena. Parametric manipulations result in gradual changes in the fraction of time a given interpretation dominates perception, often over the entire possible range of zero to one. The mean dominance durations of the competing interpretations can also vary over wide ranges (from less than a second to dozens of seconds or more), but finding systematic relations in how they vary has proven difficult. Following the pioneering work of W. J. M. Levelt (1968) in binocular rivalry, previous studies have sought to formulate a relation in terms of the effect of physical parameters of the stimulus, such as image contrast in binocular rivalry. However, the link between external parameters and “stimulus strength” is not as obvious for other bistable phenomena. Here we show that systematic relations readily emerge when the mean dominance durations are examined instead as a function of “percept strength,” as measured by the fraction of dominance time, and provide theoretical rationale for this observation. For three different bistable phenomena, plotting the mean dominance durations of the two percepts against the fraction of dominance time resulted in complementary curves with near-perfect symmetry around equi-dominance (the point where each percept dominates half the time). As a consequence, the alternation rate reaches a maximum at equi-dominance. We next show that the observed behavior arises naturally in simple double-well energy models and in neural competition models with cross-inhibition and input normalization. Finally, we discuss the possibility that bistable perceptual switches reflect a perceptual “exploratory” strategy, akin to foraging behavior, which leads naturally to maximal alternation rate at equi-dominance if perceptual switches come with a cost.


This article originally appeared in the Journal of Vision, available at DOI: 10.1167/10.11.1.



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