The “Old Woman or Young Lady” optical illusion, sometimes referred to as the Boring Figure after Edwin G. Boring who popularized it, is a classic example of a bistable, or ambiguous, perceptual image. These are images that can be interpreted in multiple ways, each interpretation being a stable and complete understanding of the figure, yet contradicting the other interpretations.
In this illusion, the drawing can be perceived as either an old woman or a young lady. The image showcases the profile view of the woman.
When you see the young woman: The young lady’s face is turned away from us, and she’s looking towards something on the right side of the image. What we perceive as the young woman’s ear is also the old woman’s eye, the young woman’s necklace is also the old woman’s mouth, and the young woman’s chin doubles as the old woman’s nose.
When you see the old woman: The old woman is also looking towards the right, but her head is more downcast. The old woman’s nose is the young woman’s chin, the old woman’s mouth is the young woman’s necklace, and the old woman’s eye is the young woman’s ear.
This illusion demonstrates the principle of figure-ground organization, a theory which suggests that we separate images into a figure or object of focus (the “figure”), and everything else (the “ground”). In the case of this illusion, your brain will typically choose to see one “figure”’ and thus one woman at a time, flipping between them the more you look at the image.
It’s an intriguing testament to the power and subjectivity of our perception—illustrating how our brains are capable of switching between different interpretations of the same sensory input.