This meme has been appearing frequently in my Twitter feed lately (origin unknown):
I don’t know about you, but I see a horse’s head with bunny ears. And when I focus on the horse’s snout and try to see a face in it, the whole shape becomes a seal on its stomach with its tail in the air.
But I don’t see a fish or a mermaid. Does that make me other-brained?
If I could switch between seeing a fish and a mermaid instead of a horse and a seal, would that mean I’m switching between being ‘right-brained’ and being ‘left-brained’?
If a computer with pattern-recognition software identified a fish in the picture, what would that make the computer? It doesn’t even have a brain.
Surely the meme didn’t originate with neuroscientists, and I have no doubt some will see it as a joke, but the meme rests on a cultural background which focuses, as usual, too much on hardware and casts people as mindless automata.
Why explain the phenomenon of different people seeing different things in this picture in terms of brain halves when it is much better explained in terms of different ideas and preferences? When children learn to identify and interpret what they see around them – this ability isn’t inborn – they come up with different ideas about how to do just that. Countless iterations of error correction will make their shape-recognition algorithms converge to a high degree, but, particularly for ambiguous shapes, people will creatively find different answers.
That’s why people see different shapes in the picture above. Not because of their brains!