Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 1): Recognizing an Optical Illusion

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~ Part 1 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 2: Deconstructing an Optical Illusion
Part 3: What You See
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my-wife-and-my-mother-in-law

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)

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References

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.

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