What Are Visual Ambiguities?
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What Are Visual Ambiguities?

How does the visual system resolves ambiguities by making different types of assumptions.

Visual ambiguities occur as light enters the retina providing a two-dimensional representation of an object. Of course, the world is three-dimensional, so the visual system makes assumptions about an object as it appears, relative to the object’s position and association with other items in its immediate vicinity. The reflectivity's of an object; its texture, perceived size, and how far away the object appears to be, are the variables considered when tying to identify the object. This information, however, is indeterminate, so it is analyzed using multiple cognitive processes to arrive at a conclusion (Willingham, p. 72).

Assume for a moment that an oncoming vehicle appears to be a bicycle because of its unusual shape. Because of the perceived distance away from the person viewing it, one can safely assume that the bicycle is the usual size of most other bicycles. The object thought to be the bicycle also appears to have some reflectivity, so the assumption about it is safe so far because most bicycles are adorned with chrome pieces that easily reflect light and appear as shiny, smaller parts of the entire thing.


Little else can be known about the bicycle (or whether it is a bicycle) until it comes closer. The bicycle could be traveling slowly, keeping the appearance of the bicycle tiny and vague for a longer period, or the bicycle could be extremely large. If the bicycle is larger than most bicycles, it is either moving toward the subject slower than anticipated, it may simply mean that the bicycle is farther away than was first thought. In any case, the identification of the object will remain as ‘bicycle’ until the object is close enough to assume otherwise.

Further information to decide what an object could be can be drawn from the environment. Ordinarily, a car belongs in an outdoor environment, so an object that might initially appear to be a car at the end of a pavilion is more likely to be an innate object that has the same shape as a car but is not a car. Similarly, an artist’s representation of a person in sculptured form is immediately recognized as a person, as will the painted and flat, two-dimensional representation of the same character, yet each is identifiable in its own context because of its location, shape, light reflectivity, and position in a gallery.


Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River,

NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall

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Comments (2)

Informative share and nicely written, too. Thanks

Ranked #13 in Psychology

Thank you, Donata:)