The dynamics of perceptual rivalry in bistable and tristable perception

J Vis. 2013 Feb 20;13(2):24. doi: 10.1167/13.2.24.


Human observers are extremely adept at correctly interpreting the visual input that they receive despite its inherent ambiguity. There are, however, situations in which no single, valid interpretation exists and perception oscillates. Such situations offer insight into the processes underlying perception, as they reveal the conditions under which our percept can alter in the presence of an unchanging physical stimulus. Many studies have focused on perceptual switching during binocular and monocular rivalry, or when viewing ambiguous figures. The majority of these studies have focused on bistable phenomena. In this paper we report the study of a range of ambiguous stimuli that provoke tristable perception, thereby providing a more exacting test bed for current models. We find that subjects spontaneously move from periods of bistable to tristable perception and that this results in a characteristic change in the rate of perceptual switching. In contrast to reports for bistable stimuli, we find only weak evidence for consistency in the relative switch rates of individuals across our test stimuli and explain why our results are inconsistent with the theory of interhemispheric switching. We go on to describe how the results are, instead, largely consistent with models of rivalry based on mutual inhibition and adaptation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Vision Disparity / physiology*
  • Vision, Binocular / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*