An interdisciplinary study of visual indeterminacy

Document Type: 
ASSC Conference Item
Article Type: 
Theory of Consciousness
Date of Issue: 
Robert Pepperell, Alumit Ishai
Event Dates: 
23-26 June 2006
Event Location: 
Event Title: 
10th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness
Event Type: 
ASSC Conference
Presentation Type: 
Number of Pages: 
Official URL:
Visual Indeterminacy occurs when viewers are presented with apparently detailed and vivid images that nevertheless resist identification. This invokes an unusual state of awareness in which the formal aspects of perception (form, colour, motion) become temporarily dissociated from the semantic aspects (meaning, memory, association). The resulting condition differs from our habitual mode of seeing, where visual sensation is accompanied by immediate recognition. Instead the viewer is presented with a perceptual conundrum - an apparently meaningful yet momentarily meaningless scene - which they struggle to resolve. Visual Indeterminacy is therefore an excellent model through which to investigate conscious awareness. I will summarise some references to visual indeterminacy in art history and literature, where it has been associated with heightened states of awareness and aesthetic experience, and in recent neurobiological research, where it is associated with increased neural activity. I will then present my own examples of indeterminate images created through painting, and report on the recent research undertaken in collaboration with neuroscientists which measures the behavioural and affective responses to these works. Comparing these indeterminate paintings with similar yet recognisable paintings, using colour and monochrome examples of each, subjects performed an object recognition task followed by a judgement of aesthetic affect task. Preliminary data indicates that regardless of image type (indeterminate vs recognisable) and color (color vs monochrome), all subjects similarly rated the aesthetic affect of all paintings. Nevertheless, significant differences in response latencies were observed between categories of images, such that indeterminate images were associated with longer reaction times. These differential latencies likely reflect the underlying cognitive processes which mediate the resolution of object indeterminacy. The interdisciplinary study of visual indeterminacy is important to our understanding of consciousness, because it may offer an insight into the very mechanisms through which our sensory apprehension of the world is integrated with our knowledge and experience. Understanding this integration, and how it sometimes falters, would further enhance our account of human consciousness. Space permitting, a small selection of paintings will be exhibited with the poster.
Oxford_Poster3.pdf1.71 MB