If you look at the Disney’s 2002 Lion King release poster, you may be subjecting yourself to a subliminal message. If you haven’t paid attention to the image before, take a moment to see if you see anything in the image other than a lion’s face in the clouds. What your mind is being subjected to is a multistable image, where you see a lion’s face at first (because this is what you expect on the cover of a movie about a lion), but after further inspection you see the backside of a mostly naked woman wearing a thong and exposing the greater part of her derrière. If you don’t see the woman, scroll to the end of this article for a clearer diagram of the subliminal imagery.
You’ve probably seen multistable images before, like Eric Weisstein’s Duck-Rabbit. As you stare at the image, your brain can start to go crazy, not knowing if it should be perceiving a duck or a rabbit. And, of course, it sees both, flipping back and forth between the two. Probably the most famous (and possibly first recognized) multistable image, the duck-rabbit has been used for study in psychology for over a century to research how the brain makes sense out of what the eyes see. The image is considered multistable because the human mind can see two images in the graphic, but not both at the same time. The brain is required to bounce back and forth between the two images.
Multistability is considered an aspect of Gestalt psychology, which suggests that the brain interprets visual inputs holistically. In other words, it looks at the big picture first, the sum of all the parts, and then later perceives all the components that make up the picture. Mutlistable pictures are interesting because they confuse the brain; it is hard for the mind to capture the big picture because it is constantly switching between multiple figures.
Multistable images are often fun to look at, since they function as a visual puzzle. Images like the Necker Cube and the Devil’s Fork and even M. C. Escher’s mosaic paintings can be considered multistable because they cause you to see one thing, and then another, and then something else.
But more than just fun visual puzzles, are they an effective tool for subliminal messaging as well? Once you see the naked woman in the Lion King poster, it is amazingly difficult not to see her anymore. Your mind will try to see a lion, then fixate on the woman, then try to go back to the lion. You be the judge: was Disney trying to use multistable imagery to subliminally promote messages about sex, or was this just another crazy accident in a figure-ground relationship design faux pas?