Every now and then, you find psychology in the children’s section of the bookstore. I don’t mean in the books that teach children how to control their emotions, or teach parents how their children think. Sometimes, psychology sneaks in an unexpected ways, as in Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Duck! Rabbit!, which is animated in this video:
The moment I saw this book, I acquired a copy for my niece and nephew, and a copy for my lab. For the little children in my family, the book is a fun romp and potential debate among siblings. For my lab, the book is a unique twist on a classic optical illusion, and some inspiration for investigating how children learn to think flexibly about the world.
These kinds of ambiguous or “reversible” figures give us a sense of cognitive flexibility: how we can go from thinking about an idea one way, to thinking about it in a different way. It can start as small as flipping a picture of a duck to being a picture of a rabbit, but it can grow to realizing that your favorite movie can be wonderful to you while still boring your date to tears. Perhaps this kind of thinking might even help lead some to realize that a baby stuck in a birth canal might also be seen like a cork stuck in a wine bottle, allowing them to invent some life-saving devices.
These reversible figures are a hot topic in cognitive psychology, prompting debates about exactly how we can see both interpretations at once and whether you have to know about the possibility of a different interpretation of the figure before you can see it as something different. The ability to see both interpretations of a figure may even be a marker of the development of the prefrontal cortex, home of the very executive functions I study; at least, that’s the argument of some research showing the bilingual children can reverse those figures better than monolinguals can, because of the extra cognitive practice that switching between languages gives them.
The bad news for trying to use Duck! Rabbit! to train children to see both sides of this ambiguous figure, is that it’s one of the easiest figures for children to reverse: in that study about bilinguals, all the researchers had to do was point to one thing, like the rabbit’s ears, and say it could be something else – just like the book does! – and most children will see a duck right away. To really see potential for improving how children switch between interpretations, we may have to turn to more challenging figures. One of those is the rat-man:
Unfortunately, it’s going to take someone with a lot more cognitive flexibility and all around creativity than I have to write an entertaining children’s book showing both sides of that illusion.