Three examples of multistable perceptions

Look at It This Way: How our brains influence how we see the world

Whether it’s physical objects or a mental ideas, we know that there’s always more than one way to see things. Yet the brain’s job is to make sense of everything, so we often aren’t conscious of just how ambiguous the world really is. To the extent that mental conception emerges from physical perception, what and how we see the world tell us a lot about how we interpret the world.

For example, sometimes the brain just can’t make up its mind. With perceptual processes, this results in multistability, which refers to what’s happening when our perception of something keeps changing (or “flipping”) even though the thing we’re perceiving does not. When you look at a Necker cube, for instance, you probably see a box with two possible facing sides, even though the image is really just an arrangement of flat lines. Not only is your brain tricking you into perceiving depth, it can’t decide orientation.

Necker cube

The research article, “Multistability in Perception,” gives us even more insight into how we perceive the world. Most commonly recognized as a visual phenomenon, we can also experience multistable perceptions through other sensory modalities. The role of binding in multistability suggests how our perceptual processes — and therefore any emergent processes to which they give rise — are inherently biased by the way our brains learn to organize sensory information.

Multistability provides a window into the mind, since it gives a natural and unique dissociation between objective properties of the stimulus and subjective sensations: the stimulus properties are constant, whereas sensations change in a dynamic fashion. The study of multistability in several perceptual modalities has the potential to provide a powerful framework for understanding how the different attributes of objects in the environment are bound together, within our perceptual systems, to provide a coherent interpretation of the world around us. This process is known as binding, and it occurs both within and across sensory modalities …

Overall, the view that emerges from studies of different modalities is that multistability reflects processes of competition between different perceptual organizations of the same scene, where the binding of sensory information is always involved.

Necker Cube | New World Encyclopedia
Multistable Perception | Wikipedia
Multistability in Perception: Binding Sensory Modalities, An Overview | Jean-Luc Schwartz • Nicolas Grimault • Jean-Michel Hupé • Brian C. J. Moore • Daniel Pressnitzer