Good Gestalt; Or, Perceptual Puzzling
Can Be Good for the Soul

h1 March 31st, 2009 by jules

Well, this past Sunday—in which the art of Julie Fortenberry was featured, incidentally, so go check that out, if you missed it—I took a poll as to whether or not the creature below was a Rabbit or a Duck. As you can see, this spread below from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s and Tom Lichtenheld’s Duck! Rabbit! is slightly different from the spread shown on Sunday, but it’s not much more help for the undecided:

To be official about it all, here were my poll results (my online poll, that is; my five-year-old walked around with the book all last week, quizzing everyone she saw):

  • “Um, hello. It is obviously a RABBIT. Okay, so it can also be a duck. But look closely people! As a RABBIT, it is so much cuter! Cuteness always wins. Therefore it is a RABBIT.”
  • “I think it’s both, but I agree that the rabbit is definitely cuter.”
  • “I vote for Rabbit (he told me to).”
  • “I’m very left-to-right-oriented, so that’s a rabbit to me – rabbit ears, then head. If it were a duck, he would be facing the other way.”
  • “Duck. I can accept it as a rabbit only if I can accept that rabbits don’t have mouths.”
  • “…it looks like a Hesperornis without the scary teeth.”
  • “I vote rabbit.”
  • “I saw a rabbit.”
  • “…Rabbit. 100%.”
  • “…that duck/rabbit is messing me up.”

So, yeah, that’s six votes for Rabbit, one lone vote for Duck (I just knew John was a non-conformist), one vote for both (with Adorability Factor edging it toward Rabbit), and one vote for Hesperornis. Only at 7-Imp. Oh, and that final vote—arguably, my favorite one—for bewilderment.

Would my results had been the same if I’d asked with this classic ambiguous image from the world of cognitive illusions?

In Rosenthal’s and Lichtenheld’s Duck! Rabbit! (a title, released by Chronicle Books this month, which has been met with happy reviews thus far), we have, as you can see here, kidlit Gestalt Psychology 101 in action. Lichtenheld’s primary image of the Rabduck (this is my own quick and very lame appellation for it) doesn’t change much in the book, but the unnamed speakers in the book, arguing fervently for their choices (“There, see? It’s flying!”; “Flying? No, it’s hopping!”), try to sway the reader with a few small additions (it’s all about context) — such as, a fish and some water for the duck (“Look, the duck is so hot, he’s getting a drink”) and a sun for the rabbit, who’s got his ears in the water (“No, the rabbit is so hot, he’s cooling off his ears”), requiring the reader to orient the book vertically.

An experiment in alternate perceptual possibilities for the picture book crowd? I love it. Don’t some of us—sometimes even in the span of twenty-four hours—imagine an endless number of possibilities in our own lives? Don’t our perceptual switches and the interpretations that are borne from them make our lives all the more interesting? And who know this better than children, I say. I could launch into Rilke and his “try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language” advice in Letters to a Young Poet, but that’d be a bit much, right? Oh, I just did. Or: Anyone else read in my interview with D.B. Johnson yesterday how what turns him off is certainty? Yeah. That.

Rosenthal and Lichtenfeld also have fun with a brief match-up at the book’s close—brachiosaurus vs. anteater—just to leave readers with more food-for-thought.

P.S. I’ll show you an optical illusion that messes me up: The Spinning Dancer. Curses! CURSES UPON HER. She makes the very hemispheres in my brain hurt. Once the left side of my brain stops arguing with the right side and I finally see her going counter-clockwise, I can’t seem to move her clockwise any more. It’s like trying to leash a dragonfly to see her move the other way again. Ergh. And then I realize thirty whole minutes have passed in my life, me watching Angelina Jolie spin.

Also: Here are more optical illusions if you have even more time to spare.

And don’t miss, speaking of perceptual madness (the good kind) and the interview with Don yesterday, the spreads from his forthcoming Escher-esque title, Palazzo Inverso, as included in that interview. Click here and here. Don’t you love it?

* * * * * * *

Illustrations from DUCK! RABBIT! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustration © 2009 by Tom Lichtenheld. Published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA. Posted with permission of publisher. All rights reserved.

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20 comments to “Good Gestalt; Or, Perceptual Puzzling
Can Be Good for the Soul”

  1. Now, that’s definitely a duck (a rabbit would be hard of hearing with those short ears). Very cool how you found that image!


  2. I love this book and throw in my vote for both, but rabbit mostly because he’s super cute with his little sniffing nose.


  3. Perceptual puzzling in picture books is badass. Woohoo!

    Okay, when I looked at the original rabduck (see how you put the “rab” before the “duck?!) I saw the duck first. The ugly duck. Then I saw the rabbit. The cute rabbit. And cute wins!


  4. I cannot get the Spinning Angelina to go clockwise AGAIN this morning. I think I give up.

    Tarie, good point that I put “rabbit” first in “rabduck.”I admit the Lichtenfeld image holds a more believable rabbit to me. But that poor duck — he’s cute, too, right? He told me he’s crying that everyone keeps saying his counterpart is The Cute One. Everything’s so easy for Rabbit.


  5. P.S. Jama, if that Rabbit’s still telling you what to do, let me know, and I’ll give him a talking to.


  6. The minute someone (John?) mentioned something about the rabbit having no mouth, my logic kicked in. Okay. It’s a duck.

    Definitely it’s a duck, looking at the old picture, but it’s one of those scary kinds that almost have teeth (and a weird bump in the back of its head). The whole Hesperornis thing is worrying me greatly…


  7. “Non-conformist”?! This is umbrage you’re getting from this corner, lady. I am wallpapering my monitor with umbrage right now.

    This is a pretty young crowd (oh, stop preening!), so you might not remember the Tonight Show bit with the guy who brought his “cabbit” onstage: part cat, part rabbit. The guys on Fernwood Tonight! even satirized this, with a reference to a “cabunny.” The whole legend of the cabbit even has its own Web page, and why does this not surprise us?

    But back to this controversial drawing. Picture yourself doing shadow puppets, and you make a shadow like this — the negative image of the rabduck or duckbunny or whatever it is. Kids start calling out, “Ooh! A rabbit!” “No, a duck!” But now you’re stuck, because as soon as you move your hands you’ll give the game away. It’s a duck, it’s gotta be. Even discounting the mouthlessness, for this to be a rabbit it must be a chance snapshot of a rabbit looking straight up. (Yeah, right, rabbits do that all the time!) But it’s a very natural-looking duck, no matter how you tilt your hands (or, for that matter, regardless how the creature tilts its head).

    So see? I can be all comformistically logical and reasonable.

    But mostly umbrageous. And, yes, a little stabby. :)


  8. I love the new word “umbrageous,” but I mostly love that you are the ONLY person saying DUCK (or you were before Tanita jumped ship), so take your umbrage and turn it into ….er, something warm and fuzzy that begins with a “u”…I give up. Embrace your unintentional non-conformism, which springs from your reasoning prowess. How’s that? Except that I think I might have just made up a word (“non-conformism”?? Hell, I dunno).

    And, hey wait…if you move your hands in this proposed shadow puppeteering, you’re not giving the game away. The rabbit, whom I’ve named Pauline, is just waving her ears a bit. It’s so totally a rabbit, dude.

    Please know I have great sympathy for the Duck, whom I’ve named Margaret, since no one acknowledges her adorability factor.


  9. Pauline is so cute. :o)

    *ignores Margaret*


  10. Harrumph. Not to drag this out, but: look.

    Nowhere, among the various rabbits represented in various poses, is a rabbit looking UP. (I think this is because rabbits who try to look UP tend to fall backwards. Probably something to do with the weight of the ears.) Where the heck is an expert on rabbit physics when you need one?

    Now I know you’re gonna go and be all, like, “Well, according to Sam Phillips…” and “Well, Neko Case says…” Which of course will trump any so-called evidence which mere I might present.

    Margaret is adorable. I think she might actually harbor secret (or not) fantasies of being a rabbit, y’know?


  11. Well, actually, since Jules is referencing a Neko Case song with “Pauline” and “Margaret” – I’d say she’s already weighed in. “Everything is easy for Pauline” = Neko sides with Margaret.


  12. The ears of the rabbit are way too long to be confused with a duck’s beak.


  13. My esteem for Neko Case just shot through the roof. Writes stupendous music! Sings and plays stupendously! Casts stupendous ballots in favor of ducks!


  14. What does Elmer Fudd think?


  15. Matt, for obvious reasons, Elmer Fudd tells me he is squarely on the side of Margaret the Duck.


  16. [...] reviewed by Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (which is where I found the above spread), Young Readers, Three Silly Chicks, A Year of [...]


  17. [...] pure silliness — and it involved a lot of hard work from me and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld (Duck! Rabbit!). But writing nonfiction is even more labor-intensive, because not only do you have to get the [...]


  18. [...] late-night cyber-coffee to discuss the book. And its illustrator, Tom Lichtenheld (you do remember this wonderful madness, don’t you?), will share some reject spreads from the book, once the coffee [...]


  19. That would be a duck with a dent on the back of its head. After all it IS always DUCK Season.


  20. Until you see the lower part, you’ll never know.


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