toss a silk veil over a crumbly wall and stare until a picture is suggested:

then ply your brush … and the result will be of heaven, not of men.”


(Sung Ti, 11C Chinese artist)












































ambiguity2a(1): The condition of admitting of two or more meanings… 2a(2): looseness of signification or reference; 2b(1): uncertainty of meaning or significance; 2b(2) mystery or mysteriousness arising esp. from a vague knowledge or understanding; (3) the intellectual or emotional interplay or tension resulting from the opposition or contraposing of apparently incompatible or contradictory elements or levels of meaning… (4) the maintaining of two or more logically incompatible beliefs or attitudes at the same time or alternatively… (Webster’s Third…)










































Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish, A vapour sometime like a bear, or lion, A tower’d citadel, a pendant rock, A forked mountain, or promontory, with trees upon’t, that nod unto the world and mock our eyes with air.  (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, IV, ii)


Ambiguity refers to a lack of resolution that may seem antithetical to the successful extraction of relevant details from nature, but it is a powerful technique to serve the organism’s need to impose order—NOT just on vague, ill-defined, or chaotic stimuli, but to communicate, to extrapolate from the known to the unknown. [although there is a an occasional tendency to go in the other direction—see Gorgias’ radical skepticism, epitomized by ‘Nothing exists; Even if it did, it couldn’t be known; Even if it could be known, it couldn’t be communicated.’]

Ambiguity and Empathy in aesthetic appreciation. was explored by Margulis et al.:

“Ambiguity, or the capacity to sustain multiple interpretations, has been identified as a central characteristic of art [2]–[5]. Studies in the visual domain have produced contradictory findings, some suggesting that ambiguity elevates artistic appreciation [6], others suggesting that a moderate level of ambiguity is preferred [7], and still others suggesting that artistic appreciation increases when ambiguity is reduced or eliminated [8], [9]. …


Aesthetic appreciation also depends on expressive interpretation—suppositions about the artist’s emotional and communicative intent [10], [11]. For many artistic domains, such as music and poetry, significant ambiguity can characterize this expressive dimension. In music, certain structural features (fast tempi and the major mode) are known to correlate with perceptions of happiness, and others (slow tempi and the minor mode) are known to correlate with perceptions of sadness [12]–[14]. Hunter, Schellenberg and Schimmack [15] demonstrated that by mixing these cues (pairing fast tempi with the minor mode, or slow tempi with the major mode), excerpts can elicit mixed emotional responses—higher happiness ratings and higher sadness ratings for the same piece. In poetry, such expressive ambiguity is commonplace [5], [16]. How might expressive ambiguity of this sort affect aesthetic experience?” (from Margulis et al. 2017)[i]  




In the (inevitable) AMBIGUITY presented to our senses, we are forced us to tell the best story we can with the best facts we have.  Countless forces shape and mitigate the often disturbing consequences of ambiguity before we are consciously aware of it. But unusual cases emphasizing the boundaries of decision making, bring the problem to consciousness (see the duck-rabbit image in the heading)

ANCHORING OUR REALITY:  Ambiguity forces us to tell “the best story we can with the best facts available.”   Typically this is a non-conscious process, responding to a lifetime of experiences in which some connections seemed more likely than others frequently enough to establish expectations and biases.   But occasionally the easy decision or categorization of a sensation (or percept or concept) is challenged –as in the Rabbit-Duck image in the header to these notes.

CONNECTING THE DOTS: I like the metaphor of constellations and that our celestial points of light can be connected in many alternate ways, each of which can become deeply enshrined in cultural consciousness.   Stars are points of light that have been in different cultures seen as the anchors for different stories, taken more-or-less seriously: they might be legends or they might be very useful devices (such as pointing out directions, aiding navigation) (visit examples)

EVOLUTION by NATURAL SELECTION can be regarded as one of the most powerful stories in science (“nothing in nature makes sense except in the light of evolution”).  Of course “evolution” was frequently used in discourse about change, but the story that utilized OBSERVATIONS (listed in table below), that are obvious to almost all naturalists, can be arranged, like points of light in the night sky, in a particularly satisfying way that Darwin termed “natural selection.”  This is the story that weaves these key observations together in a way that biologists find most satisfying (note: that’s an aesthetic judgement); almost all subsequent observations fit beautifully.  Darwin did not propose a mechanism: the subsequent proposal that genes fit that need quite well (the “neoDarwinin synthesis”) made it even more satisfying at new levels of organization.  The few observations that do not fit would drive research to great lengths of creativity and breakthrough findings such as those of epigenetics. 

EVOLUTION by means of NATURAL SELECTION – key observations and their inferences

  • OBSERVATION: Overproduction [individuals tend to produce as many offspring as possible]
  • OBSERVATION; Stability [population size seems to remain stable from generation to generation in stable environments]
  • OBSERVATION: Limited resources [there is not enough for everyone]
    • INFERENCE:  a competitive struggle for existence can be inferred
  • OBSERVATION: Variability [offspring manifest varying traits]
  • OBSERVATION: Heritability [traits are to some extent passed from one generation to the next]
    • INFERENCE: differential survival of traits and the animals that possess them (=Natural selection) inferred [some traits allow their bearers to produce more offspring than other individuals = be more fit]
    • INFERENCE: evolution by means of natural selection can be inferred. Over many generations, differential survival of organisms with advantageous traits (and the genes that code for them) leads to changes in the frequencies of genes in subsequent generations.




Order is derived from experience in concert with the current state of an organism, its needs, expectations, and a powerful drive to categorize.  Our perceptions are partly constrained by biology and partly automatized.  When on “automatic,” thinking is “centripetal” and variants are “normalized” at the center of our thinking;  in “centrifugal” thinking we look for the boundary conditions  –exceptions “that make the rule,”  and the most altered form that can still fit a category.  This is when we further resolve stimuli and make finer distinctions leading to additional categories.  Taxonomists so inclined are termed “splitters” (as opposed to “lumpers”).  Also, we may rebelliously try to explore alternatives to what might be perceived as an overly constrained and non-negotiable universe.


In Mallarme’s Symbolist theories (“It seems to me that there should  only be allusions”), Leonardo’s sfumato (veiled form such as the blurs around Mona Lisa’s eyes), Titian’s “crude daubs,” the broadening brush  strokes of Rembrandt’s maturity, in all these, the power of ambiguity has  been harnessed to help the artist penetrate more deeply into the recipient’s mind in order to engage more complete participation.  This is the secret of the Bhagavad Gita‘s allegory, Christ’s parables, and the Oracle’s riddles. 










































IS ART a PROJECTIVE TEST?  Projective tests such as the Rorschach (ink-blot) test or the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT, ambiguous drawings),were once thought to be an “X-ray of the personality.”  Ambiguity provides a ground onto which one might project the underlying hopes, fears, and anxieties that influence overt behavior. 

Projective tests were immensely popular and influential since the 1930’s but “ . . . alas, the virtues of tests that try to assess personality types are illusory: research shows that a single person’s scores are unstable, often changing over the course of years, weeks, even hours (a subject may be ”a good intuitive thinker in the afternoon but not in the morning,” some researchers have noted). And, worse, there is little evidence of the correlation of test scores with school performance, managerial effectiveness, team building or career counseling” (Sally Satel, 2004)









































 AMBIGUITY and selective attention suggests how the brain “makes meaning”  See snip from New Scientist


What is that je ne sais quoi? that makes everything seem to make “better” sense.


Sometimes, a very simple stimulus can unexpectedly “organize” other, often disorganized and seemingly unimportant stimuli into a coherent whole (see redintegration ), a phenomenon that may be related to the AHA! experience or epiphany … the sudden pleasurable detection of a previously unseen order…







how is redintegration be related to to


(text extracted from http://skepdic.com/apophenia.html )


“Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by K. Conrad in 1958 (Brugger).

Soon after his son committed suicide, Episcopalian  (1913-1969) began seeing meaningful messages in such things as a stopped clock, the angle of an open safety pin, and the angle formed by two postcards lying on the floor. He thought they were conveying the time his son had shot himself (Christopher 1975: 139).

Peter Brugger of the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, gives examples of apophenia from August Strindberg’s Occult Diary, the playwright’s own account of his psychotic break:

He saw “two insignia of witches, the goat’s horn and the besom” in a rock and wondered “what demon it was who had put [them] … just there and in my way on this particular morning.” A building then looked like an oven and he thought of Dante’s Inferno.

He sees sticks on the ground and sees them as forming Greek letters which he interprets to be the abbreviation of a man’s name and feels he now knows that this man is the one who is persecuting him. He sees sticks on the bottom of a chest and is sure they form a .

He sees tiny hands in prayer when he looks at a walnut under a microscope and it “filled me with horror.”

His crumpled pillow looks “like a marble head in the style of Michaelangelo.” Strindberg comments that “these occurrences could not be regarded as accidental, for on some days the pillow presented the appearance of horrible monsters, of gothic gargoyles, of dragons, and one night … I was greeted by the Evil One himself….”

According to Brugger, “The propensity to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas most closely links psychosis to creativity … apophenia and creativity may even be seen as two sides of the same coin.” Some of the most creative people in the world, then, must be  and therapists who use projective tests like the  or who see  behind every emotional problem. Brugger notes that one analyst thought he had support for the penis envy theory because more females than males failed to return their pencils after a test. Another spent nine pages in a prestigious journal describing how sidewalk cracks are vaginas and feet are penises, and the old saw about not stepping on cracks is actually a warning to stay away from the female sex organ.

Brugger’s research indicates that high levels of dopamine affect the propensity to find meaning, patterns, and significance where there is none, and that this propensity is related to a tendency to believe in the paranormal.

In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where none, in fact, exist. It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia, e.g.,  and , , , , , , most forms of , the prophecies of , , and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.   (Last updated 02/13/06)



  • Brugger, Peter. “From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought,” Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001).
  • Leonard, Dirk M.A. and Peter Brugger, Ph.D. “Creative, Paranormal, and Delusional Thought: A Consequence of Right Hemisphere Semantic Activation?” Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, 1998, Vol. 11, No. 4 pp. 177-183.
  • For additional readings and complete text go to  http://skepdic.com/apophenia.html










































This may be related to pattern detection, an ability that exists across a broad spectrum and could even become detached from reality (see  pareidolia, below) and be connected with an extreme expression of the normal physiological process of “filling-in.”







the face on mars,

imaged by the Viking Orbiter

in the 1970s



 NASA’s notes about the face

FACES, FACES, EVERWHERE: interesting NY Times blog entry on “face pareidolia”

Sensitive to subliminal cues or gullible:

Pareidolia “(from Greek para- amiss, faulty, wrong + eidolon, diminutive of eidos appearance, form) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (usually an image) being mistakenly perceived as recognizable. Common examples include images of animals or faces in clouds, seeing the man in the moon, and hearing messages on records played in reverse. // Human beings are apparently “hard-wired” to identify the human face. One possible explanation for this is that unresponsive infants tended to be ignored or abandoned, as Carl Sagan speculated in The Demon-Haunted World.… The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia attempting to gain insight into a person’s mental state….”  —   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia        



“There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good- will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. –David Hume


Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. . . . Under ordinary circumstances, pareidolia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based upon sense perception.   

Under clinical circumstances, some psychologists encourage pareidolia as a means to understanding a patient, e.g., the  Rorschach “ink blot” test.


Astronomer Carl Sagan claimed that the human tendency to see faces in tortillas, clouds, cinnamon buns, and the like is an evolutionary trait. He writes: “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin (Sagan 1995: 45)


I think Sagan is right about the tendency to recognize faces, but I don’t see any reason to think there is an evolutionary advantage in seeing replicas of paintings, ghosts, demons, and the like, in inanimate objects. There is, of course, an evolutionary advantage in seeing images of dinner or predators against a varied environmental background. There would be no advantage for, say, a hawk to be dive-bombing shadows on rocks, however. It seems likely that the modern mind is making associations with shapes, lines, shadows, and the like that are connected to current desires, interests, hopes, obsessions, and the like.


Most people recognize illusions for what they are, but some become fixated on the reality of their perception and turn an il lusion into a de lusion. A little bit of critical thinking, however, should convince most reasonable people that a potato that looks like the Hindu god Ganesh, a cinnamon bun that looks like mother Teresa, or a burnt area on a tortilla that looks like Jesus are accidents and without significance. It is more likely that the Virgin Mary one sees in the reflection of a mirror or on the floor of an apartment complex or in the clouds has been generated from one’s own imagination than that a person who has been dead for 2,000 years should manifest herself in such a mundane and useless fashion.”

 — from Skeptic’s Dictionary












One step further: DREAMS (link needs repair):


All we know are our memories –we may be more or less confident in their “truthfulness” but in the brain, memories of experiences in the real world and those of fantasies or dreams are INDISTINGUISHABLE.


Some dreams are SO realistic!  Some experiences are SO dreamlike.  Could we (do we) ever get mixed up ?  . . .  How do we KNOW!


DREAMS:  At some level of our being, it is perfectly possible that dreams mean NOTHING beyond what we impose upon them.  The psychoanalytic view (that we associate with Freud) is that dreams emerge from our precociousness and that the weirdness they often manifest is our minds best attempt to disguise subconscious ideas we would rather repress. The “action synthesis” model (associated with Hobson & McCarley) suggests that the information originated in random neural processes that are mere artifacts of brain activity during sleep in the absence of external or conscious input.  The meaning (if any) of the imagery we experience may be picked up as the information passes through the various lenses of our brains.  In other words, we do our best to extract order from chaos based upon our repertoire of past possible associations.  We extract meaning from ambiguity.  Review notes on AMBIGUITY.  




“a new method of assisting the invention, which, though trifling in appearance, may yet be of considerable service in opening the mind, and putting it upon the scent of new thoughts; and it is this.  IF you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes . . . etc.  Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.”  (Leonardo, Treatise on Paintings)


Leonardo’s smudges.  In Mallarme’s Symbolist theories (“It seems to me that there should  only be allusions”), Leonardo’s sfumato(veiled form such as the blurs around Mona Lisa’s eyes), Titian’s “crude daubs,” the broadening brush  strokes of Rembrandt’s maturity, in all these, the power of ambiguity  has  been harnessed to help the artist penetrate more deeply into the recipient’s mind in order to engage more complete participation.  This is the secret of the Bhagavad Gita‘s allegory, Christ’s parables, and the Oracle’s riddles.    (SFUMATO – from Italian sfumare, “to tone down,” or “to evaporate like smoke”), in painting or drawing, term designating fine shading that produces soft, imperceptible transitions between colours and tones. It is used most often in connection with the work of  and his followers, who made subtle gradations, without lines or borders, from light to dark areas; the technique was used for a highly illusionistic rendering of facial features and for atmospheric effects. (Britannica Online) —  Also: Leonardo’s term (“dark smoke”) for using intermingling veils of translucent color to create atmospheric perspective, depth, volume, and form. These interdependent, interacting veils echoes and exploits the way the mind constructs perceptions from raw stimuli.  “In a way sfumato is a signpost to a paradox. To describe a thing by boxing it in, by drawing a line around it, which would seem to be the quickest route to accuracy, is in actuality the least accurate means of description. No depth or volume or form is communicated this way. Far better to first develop a fuzzy, hazy concept of the thing which is slowly fleshed out, with lines, or harsh defining strokes as the final touch. Indeed is this not the way the human mind comes to understand anything it comes into contact with?” (Ben J Armstrong (downloaded Jun15, 2001), portfolio pages at  http://pages.prodigy.net/sfumato/pages/whatissfumato.html).  Related to  fumage  A method of making an image with smoke fumes. Fumage was invented by Wolfgang Paalen, whose first fumages were made with a kerosene lamp. When surrealist painter Salvador Dali (Spanish, 1904-1988), made a fumage, he called the method sfumato; and some have spelled this term “sfumage”. Very few artists have worked in fumage. Also see , , , , , parsemage, and photomontage











































The word: Ambiguity (From issue 2527 of New Scientist magazine, 26 November 2005, page 52):


“OFFICIALLY it’s to do with uncertainty or inexactness of meaning, or a lack of decisiveness or commitment resulting from a failure to make a choice between alternatives. Yes?

But there’s much more to ambiguity than that. New brain imaging studies shows that visual ambiguity, at least, may be the exact opposite: a state of too much certainty, where we have to distinguish between equally correct interpretations. By studying ambiguity, researchers may find how, in the face of equally good choices, our brains “decide” what we are seeing. They may even catch a little glimpse of consciousness at work.

So what does visual ambiguity look like? A classic example is the Kanizsa cube  . . .  an optical illusion in which a two-dimensional set of lines suggests a three-dimensional cube. The illusion is created because there are two ways to see the cube: either it seems to come out of the page with its closest side pointing down and to the left, or with its closest side pointing up and to the right.

At first, you only see one position: stare at the cube long enough and it will suddenly flip to the other one. Keep staring, and it will switch back and forth.

What’s going on? Neuroscientists such as Semir Zeki of University College London and Andreas Kleinschmidt of Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main used functional MRI scans to probe our brains when we view these ambiguous, “bi-stable” images. Zeki found that as the cube seems to switch position, different brain regions are activated, flashing back and forth between neural clusters.

How does that help us? Ambiguous images such as the Kanizsa cube may be useful in that most difficult of tasks: finding out what the brain’s physiology is doing as it makes sense of the world “out there” – and how well that sense fits with the “real” world. This is a key problem in consciousness studies. Kanizsa images seem to avoid these problems because we know that while the brain perceives different images, the stimulus remains the same: we see the cube in one position or the other, but never both at once.

Isn’t that a bit quantum? Not really: it’s more like binocular rivalry, where each eye is presented with a different image at the same time, say of a house and a bike. Intriguingly, we don’t blend the two images but perceive alternating single images: house then bike, back and forth, because different clusters of neurons are fighting for attention, rather than working together.

These studies help confirm the notion of the brain as a “meaning machine”. If the brain faithfully represented the world as it is out there, we would see the Kanizsa cube as a bunch of lines on a page, and the house and bike as a strangely blended scene. Instead, we select information and construct interpretations. When no one interpretation is most likely, we alternate between possibilities.

How amazing that something so ambiguous could give us some clear insights?”  –  Printed on Wed Dec 21 23:11:15 2005




















































































At the end of “Queen Christina,” after she has abdicated as Queen and is exiled from Sweden, Don Antonio dies in her arms.

Christina stands as a silent figurehead at the bow of the ship, the wind blowing through her hair, as the camera zooms in on the blank, enigmatic expression on her face.

What was the thinking at the time?


Director Rouben Mamoulian told her to think about  “nothing… absolutely nothing…..I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper. I want the writing to be  done by everyone in the audience.” 










Is ambiguity in the stimuli or in us? (does it help to remember Talmud: “we see the world not as IT is but as WE are”).

Those physical/physiological constraints (what we are full of) are often associated with a technique termed, “critical paranoia”

which brings to mind a key question:




[i] Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis,1,* William H. Levine,2 Rhimmon Simchy-Gross,2 and Carolyn Kroger(2017)  Expressive intent, ambiguity, and aesthetic experiences of music and poetry.   PLoS One. 2017; 12(7): e0179145. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5528260/  Published online 2017 Jul 26. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0179145  PMCID: PMC5528260