Perceptual rivalry: reflexes reveal the gradual nature of visual awareness

PLoS One. 2011;6(6):e20910. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020910. Epub 2011 Jun 3.


Rivalry is a common tool to probe visual awareness: a constant physical stimulus evokes multiple, distinct perceptual interpretations ("percepts") that alternate over time. Percepts are typically described as mutually exclusive, suggesting that a discrete (all-or-none) process underlies changes in visual awareness. Here we follow two strategies to address whether rivalry is an all-or-none process: first, we introduce two reflexes as objective measures of rivalry, pupil dilation and optokinetic nystagmus (OKN); second, we use a continuous input device (analog joystick) to allow observers a gradual subjective report. We find that the "reflexes" reflect the percept rather than the physical stimulus. Both reflexes show a gradual dependence on the time relative to perceptual transitions. Similarly, observers' joystick deflections, which are highly correlated with the reflex measures, indicate gradual transitions. Physically simulating wave-like transitions between percepts suggest piece-meal rivalry (i.e., different regions of space belonging to distinct percepts) as one possible explanation for the gradual transitions. Furthermore, the reflexes show that dominance durations depend on whether or not the percept is actively reported. In addition, reflexes respond to transitions with shorter latencies than the subjective report and show an abundance of short dominance durations. This failure to report fast changes in dominance may result from limited access of introspection to rivalry dynamics. In sum, reflexes reveal that rivalry is a gradual process, rivalry's dynamics is modulated by the required action (response mode), and that rapid transitions in perceptual dominance can slip away from awareness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Awareness
  • Dominance, Ocular / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Nystagmus, Optokinetic
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Vision, Binocular / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult