Reflection on Reflection #2

Reflection on Reflection #2

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace,
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace,
And your basement clothes and your hollow face,
Who among them can think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims,
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns,
Who among them would try to impress you?

– Bob Dylan
(Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, 1966)

Reflection on Reflection #1

Reflection on Reflection #1

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
– uncertain origin*


*Commonly attributed to Aldous Huxley.

This quote does not actually appear in Huxley’s work but is often assumed to originate from his book, The Doors of Perception (1954). The Doors of Perception is a philosophical essay reflecting on the experience of taking mescaline, titled in reference to a statement from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790).

The American rock band The Doors was named in reference to Huxley’s book. The quote above has also sometimes been attributed to co-founding band members Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, although it was likely abbreviated from a comment made by Manzarek in an interview for Newsweek: “There are things you know about,” says 25-year-old Manzarek, whose specialty is playing the organ with one hand and the bass piano with the other, “and things you don’t, the known and the unknown, and in between are the doors – that’s us. We’re saying that you’re not only spirit, you’re also this very sensuous being. That’s not evil, that’s a really beautiful thing. Hell appears so much more fascinating and bizarre than heaven. You have to ‘break on through to the other side’ to become the whole being.” (Newsweek, 1967, This Way to Egress)

It is unclear who rephrased Manzarek’s statement into the wording displayed above, or why this quote is most often attributed to Huxley despite not appearing in his published work. This is one of those things unknown.

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 2): Deconstructing an Optical Illusion

Part 1: Recognizing an Optical Illusion
~ Part 2 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 3: What You See

The Prestige

“Are you watching closely?”
– Alfred Borden (The Prestige, 2006)

In my last post, I discussed how the analogy of an optical illusion – specifically, the multistable perception that arises when viewing ambiguous images – has given me a more concrete framework to understand my experience of body dysphoria. Optical illusions have been described as an experience where “expectations are violated”, so I had challenged myself:

Does this multistable perception of my mirror image indicate the presence of some problematic expectations that my ambiguous androgyny somehow violates? Is it possible for me to deconstruct this distressing optical illusion to create a more comfortable, more coherent, and more stable cognitive interpretation of my physical appearance?

Certainly, part of the optical illusion effect comes from gender dysphoria itself. The inexplicable but undeniable distress I feel in response to seeing my female anatomy, and the detachment from my physical appearance that developed as a means to cope with that distress, both contribute to difficulty recognizing my mirror image as an accurate reflection of myself.

But now I think there was a second layer to that illusion: my own expectations about what male and female bodies are supposed to look like. My physical androgyny, deliberately designed to minimize female traits and partially successful in reducing the intensity of body dysphoria, became an optical illusion because it did not match conventional expectations of “male body” or “female body” and generated mutually exclusive alternating interpretations of “boy” or “girl”. “The perception of multistable stimuli can be influenced by contextual properties of the image, including recognizability and semantic content.” (Leopold 1999) My ambiguously androgynous mirror reflection became an illusion by violating my gendered-body expectations and refusing to align with any recognizable gender pattern in my mind.

Which leads to the third layer of this illusion: the insidiously deceptive illusion of opposites. For so many years, I assumed that because my brain did not expect to see a female body, it must expect to see a male body instead. This was an appealing and self-reinforcing assumption because a “male” body is a concrete and easily visualized image. Dozens of male bodies cross my sightline each day. My mind catalogues all their physical similarities, an additive assimilation of biased data to create an increasingly narrow idea of what makes a man a man. This process provoked a constant self-loathing comparison of my female body to their male bodies and a vicarious idealization of stereotypical physical masculinity.

A couple of months ago, I had several long conversations about my ongoing disordered eating issues and my experience of body dysphoria with a new acquaintance. When I described the optical illusion effect associated with seeing myself in the mirror, he asked, “Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror, to try to acclimatize your mind to the mirror image?” I immediately dismissed his suggestion, telling him that spending more time in front of the mirror would only prolong the uncomfortable optical illusion sensation.

But over the next few days and weeks, I found my mind continually returning to his question. Everything I hear, every word I read, everything I see – all of it, all the time – it just keeps echoing around in my brain like a constant cognitive echolalia. Questions always echo loudest.

“Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”

 “…spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”

 “…yourself in the mirror?”

I started to reconsider my original dismissal. I tried to imagine spending a longer period of time in front of the mirror. Anticipating the same discomfort and confusion that has always plagued my reflection, I remained rigidly resistant to this prospect. Until I finally realized: I don’t need to look at my reflection LONGER, I need to look at it DIFFERENTLY. I should stop trying to force the optical illusion into a logical conclusion. Instead, I need to try to see past the deception and reveal my brain’s expectations. I should stop letting myself get distracted by the magician’s misdirection, lulled over and over into seeing the impossible while knowing that it is impossible. Instead, I need to ignore the magician’s diversions and focus on the cold hard mechanics of the trick to see how it’s actually performed.

So began the mirror experiment. With an odd mixture of anxiety and curiosity, I propped myself cross-legged on the stainless steel shelf across from the mirror in my hospital bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror for an hour.

The first few minutes in front of the mirror were dominated by self-judgment. I felt so obnoxiously vain – with respect to Greek mythology, such intense focus on my reflected image is practically the definition of narcissism. But I was able to rationalize it by reminding myself that someone else had suggested this mirror experiment. After I let go of that self-judgment, the insights that arose during my time in front of the mirror were incredibly enlightening and completely unexpected.

As I stared at my reflection, I intentionally kept changing the lens through which I viewed my mirror image. I started with a third-person lens, trying to see myself neutrally, objectively, as an outsider. I wondered: What does my psychiatrist see when he looks at me? What do my friends see? What do strangers see? I revisited echoes from previous conversations, comments other people had made about my physical appearance.

“I see you as female right now because I’ve read your file and I know your age. You’re 24. But you don’t look like a 24-year-old man… probably based on the lack of facial hair. So if I just saw you on the street and didn’t know your age, I would assume you were an adolescent boy.” – a psychiatrist

“You think 80% of strangers read you as female and 20% read you as male? I dunno, McMurray… I think it’s closer to 50-50. Or maybe 60% would say you’re female, 40% male. There have been several times when we’ve had coffee where someone comes up to me after you’ve left and asked “Who was he?” or asked if you were my son.” – a friend

“Hey. I just wanted to say… you look so good in that tank top! Like, your shoulders are so jacked! Oh my god, I wish I had arms like that.” – an in-patient on the psychiatric unit

“Don’t take this the wrong way… but… your perception of yourself as ugly or unattractive is not exactly accurate… I think that might be an unrealistic and negative distortion. At least from my perspective.” – an acquaintance

Hearing those echoes and seeing the person in the mirror through this third-person perspective was like seeing an engaging snapshot of a stranger, appreciating their appearance and finding yourself curious about who they are and what their life is like. Such strict objectivity was surprisingly reassuring.

I mentally hit ⌘S to save an image of that objective snapshot, then discarded the third-person lens, toggled the microscope, slotted in a first-person filter, and reattached my “self” to the body in the mirror. As my first-person perspective came into focus, I felt the familiar flutter of distressing dysphoric confusion, but I hit ⌘S again. Then I opened up two Preview windows side-by-side to compare the third-person and first-person images.

Prior to this mirror session, I didn’t think that I had a distorted body image. I thought I saw myself realistically and just didn’t like what I saw. But this direct comparison of two different perspectives on my appearance illuminated several previously unrecognized negative distortions. I am not actually not as homely as I always thought, I am leaner and more muscular than I thought, I look physically fit and healthy. These realizations came with a deep sense of gratitude for my body and a brand new desire to treat this body kindly, no matter which gender its appears to be.

This direct side-by-side comparison also revealed a troubling cognitive sleight-of-hand: whenever I see myself, my mind immediately hones in on female anatomy and magnifies the size and significance of these female features while largely ignoring other aspects of my appearance. Being able to see myself in the third-person image without the mentally Photoshopped enhancement of physical femininity finally allowed me to appreciate how small and insignificant these female anatomical traits are on my own body.

The next step was to return to the original challenge I had set for myself: examine my expectations. I adjusted the microscope once more, retaining the first-person lens but changing the position of the focus to visualize the expectations underlying the outward appearance. It’s obvious that I do not expect to see a female body in the mirror, but do I really expect to see a male body instead? That’s an easy assumption, but is is accurate?

I have struggled for so long to create a tangible idea of my transition goals. Considering making masculinizing modifications to my body has always seemed appealing, but those options come with risks and side effects and I have been unable to clearly visualize the final outcome of these steps. So I have been overwhelmingly uncertain to what I extent I want to medically transition.

With the focus on my expectations, I opened up a third window in my mind: a CGI animation program. I imported the objective third-person image of myself and translated that into a 3D avatar that represents my current body. Then I started building an avatar to represent my “ideal” body. To do this, I had to disable the program’s automatic preset templates for “male” or “female” characters – templates generated from internalized expectations of what “men’s bodies” and “women’s bodies” are supposed to look like, expectations accumulated after nearly two and a half decades in a world that revolves around binary gender stereotypes. Without a 2D image or a preset template, I had to start from scratch on my “ideal” avatar, first building a basic genderless human body and then adding and subtracting anatomical features (a beard, a penis, a square jaw), adjusting ratios and proportions (broader shoulders, bigger deltoids, narrower hips), until my “ideal” avatar finally emerged with a startlingly concrete clarity. My “ideal” body seems to be one of nearly symmetrical androgyny: a lean and physically fit individual with moderate upper body muscle mass (prominent but not bulky), a smooth chest, a shoulder-to-hip ratio of about 1.2 to 1.4, a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.8, and a well-defined jawline. Beard and penis not required.

3D Character Model

Having created realistic 3D models of my current body and my “ideal” body, I aligned these two avatars side-by-side on the screen. I reduced the opacity of both images to about 50% transparency and dragged the “ideal” avatar over top of the “current” avatar. And then I looked for discrepancies, trying to figure out where the two avatars differ. To my astonishment, it became clear that the differences between my real body and my ideal body are far more minor than I had previously believed! My ideal body has a slightly more masculine silhouette than my current body (broader shoulders, more upper body muscle mass, wider waist, narrower hips) and slightly more masculine facial features. Otherwise, my real and ideal avatars are almost identical.

This realization was profoundly reassuring. I finally have a concrete mental image of what I want my body to look like in the future – I have an avatar to project forward in time. I also have a much more positive and more realistic perspective on my current body, a much more authentic acceptance of my current appearance, and an overwhelming gratitude for my body. My androgynous appearance no longer seems ambiguous, because I no longer have to force it to align with expectations about what men and women look like. My androgynous appearance is now unambiguously, unequivocally, unashamedly my own. “In addition to being associated with perceptual transitions during multistability, activity in frontal and parietal cortex can also contribute to percept stabilization.” (Sterzer 2009) I think these cognitive contortions through the looking-glass have finally stabilized my perception of my mirror image in a way that could be comfortable and consistent over time.

My mind lingered for a few more moments, visualizing my real and ideal avatars, regarding them both with dawning respect and gratitude and affection, feeling a growing groundedness inside these bones and vessels and muscles that are my home for life. And then, ⌘S one more time – these images are worth saving, remembering, cherishing – one by one I closed all the windows I had opened in my mind. After the software was shut down, the microscope dismantled, the lenses stowed away, I found myself with nothing left between me and my mirror image. And it was in that one raw unguarded moment that I realized: I DON’T WANT TO KILL HER. I had just spent a very intimate hour with this girl – I had seen every subtle change in her expression, seen tears of gratitude welling up, watched a bemused little grin flicker across her face, I had watched her body shift and stretch, had seen the athletic strength and flexibility behind even the smallest adjustments in posture – and I could not bear the thought of killing her. Reattaching my “self” to that thought, I realized: I DO NOT WANT TO KILL MYSELF. More than two years of suicidal ideation – varying in urgency and intensity but relentless in its constant haunting presence – evaporated in that single second. Just like magic.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal.

The Pledge is my female body: real, ordinary, medically unaltered.

 The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.

For years, my brain was stuck at the Turn, constantly creating illusions without really looking, desperately wanting to fool itself into seeing a body that matched my unchallenged expectations. I finally made those expectations disappear.

But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.”
– Cutter (The Prestige, 2006)

And now I’ve brought something back: a realistic perception of my female body, stripped of illusion and expectation, gently wrapped in gratitude and acceptance.

My body is my Prestige.


Prestige On Stage



Leopold DA, Logothetis NK. Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. 1999. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3(7):254-264. 

 Sterzer P, Kleinschmidt A, Rees G. The neural bases of multistable perception. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(7):310-318.

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 1): Recognizing an Optical Illusion

~ Part 1 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 2: Deconstructing an Optical Illusion
Part 3: What You See


Despite my detailed descriptions of the anatomic dysphoria associated with gender dysphoria, it has remained very difficult for me to explain my experience to other people in a way that is concrete and understandable to them. But the process of putting words to a such a vague yet distressing combination of thoughts and emotions has been extremely helpful for me, because it forces me to analyze my own perspective in a way that makes it more clearly defined in my own mind.

Anatomic dysphoria is often portrayed as the distress arising from a mismatch between physical attributes and an intrinsic cognitive “gender identity”. In a previous post, I described the problems with the concept of “gender identity” and argued against the idea that “gender identity” is an inborn, innate, and immutable property. So “gender identity” does not serve as a useful means of understanding my own experience. I have continued searching for other ways to conceptualize my physical dysphoria.

Re-reading previous posts on this blog and reflecting on the language that I use to describe my experience to others, I noticed that I commonly return to the analogy of an optical illusion:

“An accidental glimpse of this girl-face in the mirror feels like a baffling optical illusion, an odd reflection of a face I know so well but can never quite call my own.”

“I continue to stare at those reflections and images of myself with the unsettling mixture of curiosity, frustration, and disorientation that comes with trying to unravel a particularly puzzling optical illusion.”

I have also described the rapid and involuntary shifts in perception that occur when I view my physical image:

“My appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours.”

And I have alluded to the deliberate cognitive process involved in attempting to interpret my mirror image in a way that is more coherent and less distressing.

 “…my reflection jabbing back at me with the familiar unfamiliarity that haunts my mirror image. But this time I don’t try to fit those female fragments into a coherent structure.” 

 I have found only sparse references to this optical illusion effect in the writing of other trans authors, but what they describe about seeing their reflection closely mirrors my own experience.

“I know that what happens between my eyes and my brain and the body in the mirror is like some sort of twisted optical illusion trick.”Malachi

 “Were the optical illusions I saw reflected really me?” – Grace Stephens

 “I have entered an ambiguous time in my transition. Like the color of the tiles in the checker shadow illusion, how my gender is perceived is often entirely context dependent… When I look in the mirror, sometimes I can see two different versions of myself, depending on which cues I focus on. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘male’, I can see myself as I know myself to be, every week more aligned with my internal self-image. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘female’, I feel dysphoric and upset.” It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

“Every day, my face looks different… The feeling invoked when I look in the mirror is the same as when I view these [optical] illusions. They are confusing, disorienting, and unsettling. To me, these emotions are the defining characteristic of body dysphoria.” – Amy Dentata

In light of my personal experience and these sporadic references from other trans writers, I expanded my investigation of optical illusions. The results of my research suggest that using the analogy of an optical illusion to describe my experience of body dysphoria is extremely accurate.

One particular optical illusion that is especially relevant to my experience is the image called My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. This illusion closely aligns with my experience of anatomic dysphoria because it generates two very different interpretations of a human face based on unchanging physical features. The photo at the top of this post is my own drawing of this well-known illusion.

I recently used My Wife and My Mother-in-Law to help explain my experience of physical dysphoria to my psychiatrist. He admitted that he had seen the image before, but prior viewing does not detract from my explanation. I asked him what he saw when he looked at the picture. He said that his first impression is that of a young woman with her face turned away, but because he knows that an old woman’s face is also there, he can intentionally re-interpret the image to visualize the old woman. (The young woman’s chin becomes the old woman’s nose, and the young woman’s necklace becomes the old woman’s mouth). I asked him what he felt while looking at that image and seeing the young woman’s face alternate with the old woman’s face. He said he felt a brief and mild sensation of confusion and discomfort, but his mind naturally reset the lines back into the young woman’s face which restored a more neutral emotional response to the image. I explained that for me, the image never settles on one face or the other for very long, it constantly shifts back and forth between the young woman and the old woman, which makes the viewing experience very disorienting and confusing. Then I told him, “Imagine that the image doesn’t shift between young woman and old woman, but instead shifts between young woman and young man. Over and over and over. Imagine that the image never settles into a consistent comfortable interpretation. Imagine that you see this constantly alternating image every time you look down at your body, every time you look in the mirror, every time your reflection stares back at you from a cell phone screen or a darkened store window. Imagine that. That’s what my physical dysphoria is like, an optical illusion where my real image (young woman) and my brain’s expected image (young man) are constantly competing and my perception of the image is constantly changing to align with one or the other. I end up feeling disoriented and unsettled and completely detached from my own body.” He considered this – very carefully, very thoughtfully, as is his way – and then nodded. He truly seemed to have an accurate and empathetic understanding of my experience of anatomic dysphoria.

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law belongs to the class of optical illusions known as ambiguous images. (Podvigina 2015) Examples of other ambiguous images include the Rabbit Duck, Rubin’s Vase, Necker’s Cube, Winson Figure, and Spinning Dancer.

Many types of optical illusion create a perceived image that differs from the actual components of the figure based purely on the physical properties of the visual stimuli itself, properties such as shape, texture, contrast, and continuity of lines. These are often called literal optical illusions. Ambiguous images differ from literal optical illusions because the visual stimuli of ambiguous images allow multiple coherent cognitive perceptions to arise from the same image components. Literal optical illusions create a single inaccurate perception. Ambiguous images create multiple spontaneously shifting accurate perceptions – this experience is called multistable perception.

Multistable perception occurs when a static sensory stimulus is ambiguous and consistent with two or more mutually exclusive subjective interpretations; each interpretation is discrete and stable for a short period of time, but perception alternates between these different interpretations. (Leopold 1999, Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012, Podvigina 2015)

[Note: multistable perception can occur in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli, but this phenomenon has been most extensively investigated with respect to visual sensory input. (Schwartz 2012) The rest of this post will focus exclusively on multistable perception in a visual context].

Characteristics of multistable perception include:

  1. Exclusivity: conflicting visual representations alternate but are never simultaneously present. There is no “average” or “combined” interpretation. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012)
  2. Inevitability: alternations in perception are initiated spontaneously. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012) The alternation process cannot be completely prevented, but alternations in perception are subject to limited voluntary control and may be influenced by the intention of the observer; control over the rate of perceptual alternation and stability of each percept improves with practice. (Leopold 1999, Sterzer 2009, Podvigina 2015)
  3. Randomness: durations of successive intervals of transiently stable percepts are unpredictable and characterized by sequential stochastic independence. The statistical properties of multistable alternations show similar distributions of dominance phases (which percept is dominant) across different types of stimuli and between individuals. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012, Podvigina 2015)
  4. Dependence on awareness: perceptual reversals are very rare or even absent when observers do not know that alternative interpretational possibilities exist. (Podvigina 2015)

These traits of multistable perception also characterize my experience of anatomic dysphoria:

  1. Exclusivity: conflicting interpretations of my physical appearance seem to alternate but are never simultaneously present. I have been unable to achieve any consistent “average” interpretation of my physical features. My androgyny seems to be its own form of ambiguous image: androgynous ambiguity is consistent with two mutually exclusive interpretations – male and female – leading to multistable perception in my mind.
  2. Inevitability: these alternations in perception are initiated spontaneously. I cannot prevent them from happening whenever I see my body or my mirror image. I have limited voluntary control over which perception is dominant at any point in time.
  3. Randomness: the rate of alternation between conflicting perceptions of my physical appearance seems to be unpredictable and variable, which makes the experience confusing and unsettling.
  4. Dependence on awareness: perceptual reversals are very rare or even absent when observers do not know that alternative interpretational possibilities exist. I am constantly aware of multiple interpretations of my own appearance, so this trait is more obvious when I consider other people’s perceptions of my appearance. In situations where other people initially assume that I am either male or female, perceptual reversals occur only when the situational context later indicates that their interpretation of my sex may be inaccurate. The best example of this is when I’m standing alone in a public womens’ washroom. When women enter the washroom and first see me, their facial expression often indicates surprise (and sometimes alarm) because they interpret my appearance as male. Occasionally they ask me if I’m in the right washroom, but more often they step outside the washroom, check the sign on the door, and then, having confirmed that they are in a space designated for females only, they re-enter the washroom and re-evaluate my appearance. Now that they are aware of an alternative interpretation of my appearance, their facial expression shifts towards relief and acceptance as their mind realigns my features in a pattern recognizable as female. The Women’s Washroom Double-Take used to make me feel guilty for making someone else feel uncomfortable, but now generates more neutral interest as I observe their perceptual reversals in real-time.

“Ambiguous figures provide the experience of having one’s perceptual awareness switching between different options while at the same time remaining fully conscious that no physical stimulus change whatsoever underpins these vivid perceptual changes.” (Kleinschmidt 2012) This statement from an article reviewing the literature on multistable perception bears striking similarity to previous description of my own experience: “My appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours… My image remains familiar and recognizable, but constantly different… I know with certainty that it is not physiologically or anatomically possible for any human body to change that much in such a short period of time. I know this. I remind myself of that over and over. Yet what I keep seeing with my own eyes, right there in front of me, incontrovertible visual evidence, is this shape-shifting mirror-ghost of a body that I cannot imagine I actually inhabit.”

Unlike many optical illusions which create illusory perceptions primarily due to deficits in the visual system, ambiguous images (a form of multistable stimuli) are unique in allowing neural activity related to subjective conscious perception to be distinguished from neural activity related to objective physical stimulus properties. (Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012) Evidence from several lines of empirical neuroscience (including functional magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation in humans and non-human primates) suggests that continuous processes in the frontal and parietal cortex are involved in constantly re-evaluating interpretations of sensory input and initiating changes in subjective perception, which results in the rapid and spontaneous perceptual alternations characteristic of multistable perception. (Leopold 1999, Sterzer 2009) These processes occur unconsciously during normal vision (almost all visual stimuli contain some degree of ambiguity that is rapidly and accurately resolved by this processing). This re-evaluation of perception only becomes consciously apparent when ambiguities in visual stimuli are maximized. (Leopold 1999, Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009) Multistable perception thus appears to be one component of an adaptive global process that generates a unified and coherent interpretation of the world, even though the information available to interpret is often fragmentary, conflicting, or ambiguous. (Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012) Multistable perception represents a kind of “stable instability” in subjective interpretation. (Schwartz 2012) And it seems that physical androgyny represents a particularly ambiguous image that is difficult for many people – myself and others – to interpret coherently.

The experience of multistable perception shows considerable individual variability. The rate of perceptual fluctuation tends to be consistent for a given person but varies by as much as an order of magnitude from one person to the next. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012, Kleinschmidt 2012) Individual variation in the rate of perceptual alternation is associated with genetic factors, differences in brain structure (particularly in parietal lobe regions), and personal attributes including intelligence, creativity, and even mood disorders. (Leopold 1999, Kleinschmidt 2012, Podvigina 2015) Not only are there large individual differences in perceptual switch rates, there are also individual differences in preference for one percept over another – the preferred (dominant) interpretation of an ambiguous image is observed for a longer duration than the non-dominant interpretation over a period of spontaneous perceptual alternation. (Podvigina 2015) Certainly my personal experience aligns with this data. From my conversations with others regarding My Wife and My Mother-in-Law, it seems that I experience a much faster rate of perceptual reversal than most people: for me the image fluctuates very rapidly between the young woman’s face and the old woman’s face, while others describe something similar to what my psychiatrist described where perceptual switches occur less frequently and are more dependant on deliberate effort. It also seems that I experience less pronounced perceptual dominance than most people: I usually see the old woman’s face on first glance but during subsequent perceptual alternation it doesn’t feel like either face represents a more stable observation, while others generally describe that the perception of the young woman’s face is heavily dominant. So I wonder: do my individual characteristics associated with more rapid perceptual alternation and less pronounced perceptual dominance in response to multistable visual stimuli also contribute to my rapid shifts in perception and my difficulty maintaining a consistent interpretation of my own mirror image?

I think the optical illusion analogy is very valuable to help explain my experience of physical dysphoria. I have now refined this optical illusion analogy to refer more specifically to multistable perception that arises in response to viewing ambiguous images (particularly ambiguous images involving human faces). This new framework supports discussions with other people on the topic of anatomic dysphoria, and also provides a more concrete scaffold for me to construct a better understanding of my own experience.

Al Seckel, formerly considered one of the world’s leading authorities on illusions, referred to optical illusions as an experience where “expectations are violated” (TED, 2004). On my journey through Genderland thus far, I have radically re-evaluated personal and cultural expectations that I previously took for granted. I have deliberately distanced myself from restrictive and oppressive societal gender stereotypes and expectations. But now, I think I need to challenge myself even further. Does this multistable perception of my mirror image indicate the presence of some problematic expectations that my ambiguous androgyny somehow violates? Is it possible for me to deconstruct this distressing optical illusion to create a more comfortable, more coherent, and more stable cognitive interpretation of my physical appearance?

 “As much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
– The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt, 2013)



Eagleman DM. Visual illusions and neurobiology. 2001. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience 2(12):920-926.

Kleinschmidt A, Sterzer P, Rees G. Variability of perceptual multistability: from brain state to individual trait. 2012. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological 367(1591): 988-1000.  

Leopold DA, Logothetis NK. Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. 1999. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3(7):254-264. 

 Podvigina DN, Chernigovskaya TV. Top-down influences to multistable perception: evidence from temporal dynamics. 2015. International Scholarly and Scientific Research & Innovation 9(11):3849-3852.

 Schwartz J, Grimault N, Hupe J, et al. Multistability in perception: binding sensory modalities, an overview. 2012. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological 367(1591):896-905. 

Sterzer P, Kleinschmidt A, Rees G. The neural bases of multistable perception. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(7):310-318.