Bistable perception: neural bases and usefulness in psychological research

Supplementary Files

Figure 1 Properties of bistable perception
Types of bistable images
Neural bases of bistable perception
Low-level and high-level models
Perceptual modulators


bistable perception
visual perception
bistable images
psychological research.

How to Cite

Rodríguez Martínez, G. A., & Castillo Parra, H. (2018). Bistable perception: neural bases and usefulness in psychological research. International Journal of Psychological Research, 11(2), 63–76.


Bistable images have the possibility of being perceived in two different ways. Due to their physical characteristics, these visual stimuli allow two different perceptions, associated with top-down and bottom-up modulating processes. Based on an extensive literature review, the present article aims to gather the conceptual models and the foundations of perceptual bistability. This theoretical article compiles not only notions that are intertwined with the understanding of this perceptual phenomenon, but also the diverse classification and uses of bistable images in psychological research, along with a detailed explanation of the neural correlates that are involved in perceptual reversibility. We conclude that the use of bistable images as a paradigmatic resource in psychological research might be extensive. In addition, due to their characteristics, visual bistable stimuli have the potential to be implemented as a resource in experimental tasks that seek to understand diverse concerns linked essentially to attention, sensory, perceptual and memory processes.


Aydin, S., Strang, N. C., & Manahilov, V. (2013). Agerelated deficits in attentional control of perceptual rivalry. Vision Research, 77 , 32–40. doi:

Baker, D. H., & Graf, E. W. (2010). Extrinsic factors in the perception of bistable motion stimuli. Vision Research, 50(13), 1257–1265. doi:

Baker, D. H., Karapanagiotidis, T., Coggan, D. D., Wailes-Newson, K., & Smallwood, J. (2015). Brain networks underlying bistable perception. NeuroImage, 119, 229–234. doi:

Balcetis, E., & Dale, R. (2007). Conceptual set as a top—down constraint on visual object identification. Perception, 36(4), 581–595. doi:

Barrera, M., & Calderón, L. (2013). Notes for supporting an epistemological neuropsychology: contributions from three perspectives. International Journal of Psychological Research, 6(2), 107–118.

Basar-Eroglu, C., Mathes, B., Khalaidovski, K., Brand, A., & Schmiedt-Fehr, C. (2016). Altered alpha brain oscillations during multistable perception in schizophrenia. International Journal of Psychophysiology,103, 118–128. doi:

Bialystok, E., & Shapero, D. (2005). Ambiguous benefits: The effect of bilingualism on reversing ambiguous figures. Developmental Science, 8(6), 595–604. doi:

Borisyuk, R., Chik, D., & Kazanovich, Y. (2009). Visual perception of ambiguous figures: synchronization based neural models. Biological Cybernetics, 100(6), 491–504. doi: 10.1007/s00422-009-0301-1

Borisyuk, R., & Hoppensteadt, F. (2004). A theory of epineuronal memory. Neural Networks, 17 (10), 1427–1436. doi:

Brascamp, J. W., Klink, P. C., & Levelt, W. J. M. (2015). The “laws” of binocular rivalry: 50 years of Levelt’s propositions. Vision Research, 109, 20–37. doi:

Brouwer, G. J., & van Ee, R. (2006). Endogenous influences on perceptual bistability depend on exogenous stimulus characteristics. Vision Research, 46(20), 3393–3402. doi:

Carroll, S. R., & Bressloff, P. C. (2014). Binocular rivalry waves in a directionally selective neural field model. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, 285, 8–17. doi:

Castelo-Branco, M., & Castelhano, J. (2015). Perceptual decision making. In A. W. Toga (Ed.), Brain Mapping (p. 401 - 408). Waltham: Academic Press. doi:

Chung-Fat-Yim, A., Sorge, G. B., & Bialystok, E. (2017). The relationship between bilingualism and selective attention in young adults: evidence from an ambiguous figures task. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 70(3), 366–372. doi:

Clément, G., & Demel, M. (2012). Perceptual reversal of bi-stable figures in microgravity and hypergravity during parabolic flight. Neuroscience Letters, 507 (2), 143–146. doi:

Clément, G., & Eckardt, J. (2005). Influence of the gravitational vertical on geometric visual illusions. Acta Astronautica, 56(9-12), 911–917. doi:

Cumming, B. G., & Parker, A. J. (1997). Responses of primary visual cortical neurons to binocular disparity without depth perception. Nature, 389(6648), 280. doi: 10.1038/38487

Denham, S., Bendixen, A., Mill, R., Tóth, D., Wennekers, T., Coath, M., … Winkler, I. (2012). Characterising switching behaviour in perceptual multi-stability. Journal of Neuroscience Methods, 210(1), 79 - 92. doi:

de Weert, C. M. M., Snoeren, P. R., & Koning, A. (2005). Interactions between binocular rivalry and Gestalt formation. Vision Research, 45(19), 2571–2579. doi:

Fagard, J., Sacco, S., Yvenou, C., Domellöf, E., Kieffer, V., Tordjman, S., … Mamassian, P. (2008). The role of the corpus callosum in the perception of reversible figures in children. Vision Research, 48(23-24), 2451–2455. doi:

Feist, M. I., & Gentner, D. (2007). Spatial language influences memory for spatial scenes. Memory & Cognition, 35(2), 283–296. doi: 10.3758/BF03193449

Fukuda, H., & Blake, R. (1992). Spatial interactions in binocular rivalry. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 18(2), 362. doi:

Gale, A. G., & Findlay, J. M. (1983). Eye movement patterns in viewing ambiguous figures. Eye movements and psychological functions: International views, 145–168.

García-Pérez, M. A. (1989). Visual inhomogeneity and eye movements in multistable perception. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 46(4), 397–400. doi:

García-Pérez, M. A. (1992). The role of eye movements in perceptual processes. In E. Chekaluk & K. Llewellyn (Eds.), (Vol. 88, pp. 73–109). Amsterdam- London - New York - Tokyo: North-Holland: Elsevier. doi:

Goolkasian, P., & Woodberry, C. (2010). Priming effects with ambiguous figures. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 72(1), 168–178. doi:

Gori, S., Giora, E., & Pedersini, R. (2008). Perceptual multistability in figure-ground segregation using motion stimuli. Acta Psychologica, 129(3), 399–409. doi:

Grossmann, J. K., & Dobbins, A. C. (2006). Competition in bistable vision is attribute-specific. Vision Research, 46(3), 285–292. doi:

Hancock, S., & Andrews, T. J. (2007). The role of voluntary and involuntary attention in selecting perceptual dominance during binocular rivalry. Perception, 36(2), 288–298. doi:

Heinrichs, R. W., & Zakzanis, K. K. (1998). Neurocognitive deficit in schizophrenia: a quantitative review of the evidence. Neuropsychology, 12(3), 426. doi: 10.1037/0894-4105.12.3.426

Hsiao, J.-Y., Chen, Y.-C., Spence, C., & Yeh, S.-L. (2012). Assessing the effects of audiovisual semantic congruency on the perception of a bistable figure. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), 775–787. doi:

Intaitė, M., Koivisto, M., & Castelo-Branco, M. (2014). Event-related potential responses to perceptual reversals are modulated by working memory load. Neuropsychologia, 56, 428–438. doi:

Intaitė, M., Koivisto, M., Rukšėnas, O., & Revonsuo, A. (2010). Reversal negativity and bistable stimuli: Attention, awareness, or something else? Brain and Cognition, 74(1), 24–34. doi:

Intaitė, M., Noreika, V., Šoliūnas, A., & Falter, C. M. (2013). Interaction of bottom-up and top-down processes in the perception of ambiguous figures. Vision Research, 89, 24–31. doi:

Jackson, S., Cummins, F., & Brady, N. (2008). Rapid perceptual switching of a reversible biological figure. PloS one, 3(12), 1–15. doi:

Kanai, R., Carmel, D., Bahrami, B., & Rees, G. (2011). Structural and functional fractionation of right superior parietal cortex in bistable perception. Current Biology, 21(3), R106–R107. doi:

Kleinschmidt, A., Büchel, C., Zeki, S., & Frackowiak,R. S. J. (1998). Human brain activity during spontaneously reversing perception of ambiguous figures. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 265(1413), 2427–2433. doi: 10.1098/rspb.1998.0594

Kogo, N., Hermans, L., Stuer, D., van Ee, R., & Wagemans, J. (2015). Temporal dynamics of different cases of bi-stable figure–ground perception. Vision Research, 106, 7–19. doi:

Kornmeier, J., & Bach, M. (2005). The Necker cube—an ambiguous figure disambiguated in early visual processing. Vision Research, 45(8), 955–960. doi:

Kornmeier, J., & Bach, M. (2006). Bistable perception—along the processing chain from ambiguous visual input to a stable percept. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 62(2), 345–349. doi:

Kornmeier, J., Hein, C. M., & Bach, M. (2009). Multistable perception: when bottom-up and top-down coincide. Brain and Cognition, 69(1), 138–147. doi:

Krug, K., Brunskill, E., Scarna, A., Goodwin, G. M., & Parker, A. J. (2008). Perceptual switch rates with ambiguous structure-from-motion figures in bipolar disorder. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 275(1645), 1839–1848. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0043

Lalanne, C., & Lorenceau, J. (2004). Crossmodal integration for perception and action. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 98(1-3), 265–279. doi:

Laukkonen, R. E., & Tangen, J. M. (2017). Can observing a Necker cube make you more insightful? Consciousness and Cognition, 48, 198–211. doi:

Leopold, D. A., & Logothetis, N. K. (1999). Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. Trends in cognitive sciences, 3(7), 254–264. doi:

Liu, C.-H., Tzeng, O. J. L., Hung, D. L., Tseng, P., & Juan, C.-H. (2012). Investigation of bistable perception with the “silhouette spinner”: Sit still, spin the dancer with your will. Vision Research,60, 34–39. doi:

Long, G. M., & Batterman, J. M. (2012). Dissecting perceptual processes with a new tri-stable reversible figure. Perception, 41(10), 1163–1185. doi:

Long, G. M., & Toppino, T. C. (1981). Multiple representations of the same reversible figure: Implications for cognitive decisional interpretations. Perception, 10(2), 231–234. doi:

Long, G. M., & Toppino, T. C. (2004). Enduring interest in perceptual ambiguity: alternating views of reversible figures. Psychological bulletin, 130(5), 748. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.748

Matsumoto, Y., Takahashi, H., Murai, T., & Takahashi, H. (2015). Visual processing and social cognition in schizophrenia: relationships among eye movements, biological motion perception, and empathy. Neuroscience research, 90, 95–100. doi:

McBain, R., Norton, D. J., Kim, J., & Chen, Y. (2011). Reduced cognitive control of a visually bistable image in schizophrenia. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 17 (3), 551–556. doi:

Meenan, J. P., & Miller, L. A. (1994). Perceptual flexibility after frontal or temporal lobectomy. Neuropsychologia, 32(9), 1145–1149. doi:

Megumi, F., Bahrami, B., Kanai, R., & Rees, G. (2015). Brain activity dynamics in human parietal regions during spontaneous switches in bistable perception. NeuroImage, 107 , 190–197. doi:

Meng, M., & Tong, F. (2004). Can attention selectively bias bistable perception? Differences between binocular rivalry and ambiguous figures. Journal of Vision, 4(7), 2–2. doi: 10.1167/4.7.2

Meso, A. I., & Masson, G. S. (2015). Dynamic resolution of ambiguity during tri-stable motion perception. Vision research, 107 , 113–123. doi:

Mishra, J., & Hillyard, S. A. (2009). Endogenous attention selection during binocular rivalry at early stages of visual processing. Vision research, 49(10), 1073–1080. doi:

Moreno-Bote, R., Rinzel, J., & Rubin, N. (2007). Noiseinduced alternations in an attractor network model of perceptual bistability. Journal of neurophysiology,98(3), 1125–1139. doi:

Mudrik, L., Deouell, L. Y., & Lamy, D. (2011). Scene congruency biases binocular rivalry. Consciousness and cognition, 20(3), 756–767. doi:

Munar, E., Rosselló, J., Maiche, A., Travieso, D., & Nadal, M. (2008). Manual de neuropsicología. In V. Editores (Ed.), (pp. 59–96). Barcelona. doi:

Munhall, K. G., Ten Hove, M. W., Brammer, M., & Paré, M. (2009). Audiovisual integration of speech in a bistable illusion. Current Biology, 19(9), 735–739. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.019

Naber, M., Gruenhage, G., & Einhäuser, W. (2010). Tristable stimuli reveal interactions among subsequent percepts: Rivalry is biased by perceptual history. Vision Research, 50(8), 818–828. doi:

Ngo, T. T., Liu, G. B., Tilley, A. J., Pettigrew, J. D., & Miller, S. M. (2008). The changing face of perceptual rivalry. Brain Research Bulletin, 75(5), 610–618. doi:

Okazaki, M., Kaneko, Y., Yumoto, M., & Arima, K. (2008). Perceptual change in response to a bistable picture increases neuromagnetic beta-band activities. Neuroscience Research, 61(3), 319–328. doi: 10.1016/j.neures.2008.03.010

Piantoni, G., Romeijn, N., Gomez-Herrero, G., Werf, Y. D., & Someren, E. J. W. (2017). Alpha power predicts persistence of bistable perception. Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 5208. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-05610-8

Pressnitzer, D., & Hupé, J.-M. (2006). Temporal dynamics of auditory and visual bistability reveal common principles of perceptual organization. Current biology, 16(13), 1351–1357. doi:

Qiu, J., Wei, D., Li, H., Yu, C., Wang, T., & Zhang, Q. (2009). The vase–face illusion seen by the brain: An event-related brain potentials study. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 74(1), 69–73. doi:

Ricci, C., & Blundo, C. (1990). Perception of ambiguous figures after focal brain lesions. Neuropsychologia, 28(11), 1163–1173. doi:

Rock, I., Hall, S., & Davis, J. (1994). Why do ambiguous figures reverse? Acta Psychologica, 87 (1), 33–59. doi:

Sandberg, K., Barnes, G. R., Bahrami, B., Kanai, R., Overgaard, M., & Rees, G. (2014). Distinct MEG correlates of conscious experience, perceptual reversals and stabilization during binocular rivalry. Neuroimage, 100, 161–175. doi:

Sandberg, K., Blicher, J. U., Del Pin, S. H., Andersen, L. M., Rees, G., & Kanai, R. (2016). Improved estimates for the role of grey matter volume and GABA in bistable perception. Cortex, 83, 292–305. doi:

Schauer, G., Kanai, R., & Brascamp, J. W. (2016). Parietal theta burst TMS: Functional fractionation observed during bistable perception not evident in attention tasks. Consciousness and cognition, 40, 105–115. doi:

Smith, E. L., Grabowecky, M., & Suzuki, S. (2007). Auditory-visual crossmodal integration in perception of face gender. Current Biology, 17 (19), 1680–1685. doi:

Sterzer, P., Kleinschmidt, A., & Rees, G. (2009). The neural bases of multistable perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(7), 310–318. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.04.006

Sterzer, P., & Rees, G. (2009). Bistable perception and consciousness. Encyclopedia of Consciousness, 93–106. doi:

Sterzer, P., Russ, M. O., Preibisch, C., & Kleinschmidt, A. (2002). Neural correlates of spontaneous direction reversals in ambiguous apparent visual motion. Neuroimage, 15(4), 908–916. doi:

Takase, S., Yukumatsu, S., & Bingushi, K. (2013). Perceptual dominance during binocular rivalry is prolonged by a dynamic surround. Vision research, 92, 33–38. doi:

Uhlhaas, P. J., & Silverstein, S. M. (2005). Perceptual organization in schizophrenia spectrum disorders: empirical research and theoretical implications. Psychological Bulletin, 131(4), 618. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.4.618

van Dam, L. C. J., & van Ee, R. (2006). The role of saccades in exerting voluntary control in perceptual and binocular rivalry. Vision research, 46(6-7), 787–799. doi:

van Loon, A. M., Knapen, T., Scholte, H. S., John-Saaltink, E. S., Donner, T. H., & Lamme, V. A. F. (2013). GABA shapes the dynamics of bistable perception. Current Biology, 23(9), 823–827. doi:

Vatakis, A., & Spence, C. (2007). Crossmodal binding: Evaluating the “unity assumption” using audiovisual speech stimuli. Perception & Psychophysics, 69(5), 744–756. doi:

Vernet, M., Brem, A.-K., Farzan, F., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2015). Synchronous and opposite roles of the parietal and prefrontal cortices in bistable perception: a double-coil TMS–EEG study. Cortex, 64, 78–88. doi:

Weilnhammer, V., Ludwig, K., Hesselmann, G., & Sterzer, P. (2013). Frontoparietal cortex mediates perceptual transitions in bistable perception. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(40), 16009–16015. doi:

Weilnhammer, V., Ludwig, K., Sterzer, P., & Hesselmann, G. (2014). Revisiting the Lissajous figure as a tool to study bistable perception. Vision Research, 98, 107–112. doi:

Weilnhammer, V., Stuke, H., Hesselmann, G., Sterzer, P., & Schmack, K. (2017). A predictive coding account of bistable perception-a model-based fMRI study. PLoS Computational Biology, 13(5), e1005536. doi:

Xiaogang, W., Na, S., Lei, H., Yong, Z., Taiyong, B., & Jiang, Q. (2017). Category selectivity of human visual cortex in perception of rubin face–vase illusion. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:

Yamamoto, S., & Yamamoto, M. (2006). Effects of the gravitational vertical on the visual perception of reversible figures. Neuroscience Research, 55(2), 218–221. doi:

Yeh, S.-L., Hsiao, J.-Y., Chen, Y.-C., & Spence, C. (2011). Interplay of multisensory processing, attention, and consciousness as revealed by bistable figures. i-Perception, 2(8), 910–910. doi:

The work that is sent to this journal must be original, not published or sent to be published elsewhere; and if it is accepted for publication, authors will agree to transfer copyright to International Journal of Psychological Research. 

To give up copyright, the authors allow that, International Journal of Psychological Research, distribute the work more broadly, check for the reuse by others and take care of the necessary procedures for the registration and administration of copyright; at the same time, our editorial board represents the interests of the author and allows authors to re-use his work in various forms. In response to the above, authors transfer copyright to the journal, International Journal of Psychological Research. This transfer does not imply other rights which are not those of authorship (for example those that concern about patents). Likewise, preserves the authors rights to use the work integral or partially in lectures, books and courses, as well as make copies for educational purposes. Finally, the authors may use freely the tables and figures in its future work, wherever make explicit reference to the previous publication in International Journal of Psychological Research. The assignment of copyright includes both virtual rights and forms of the article to allow the editorial to disseminate the work in the manner which it deems appropriate. 

The editorial board reserves the right of amendments deemed necessary in the application of the rules of publication.


Download data is not yet available.