Concept formation and categorization of complex, asymmetric, and impossible figures

Sarah M. Shuwairi, Rebecca Bainbridge, Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Impossible figures are striking examples of inconsistencies between global and local perceptual structures, in which the overall spatial configuration of the depicted image does not yield a coherent three-dimensional object. In order to investigate whether structural "impossibility" is an important perceptual property of depicted objects, we used a category formation task in which subjects were asked to divide pictures of shapes into groups that seemed most natural to them. Category formation is usually unidimensional, such that sorting is dominated by a single perceptual property, so this task can serve as a measure of which dimensions are most salient. In Experiment 1, subjects received sets of 12 line drawings consisting of six possible and six impossible objects. Very few subjects grouped the figures by impossibility on the first try, and only half did so after multiple attempts at sorting. In Experiment 2, we investigated other global properties of figures: symmetry and complexity. Subjects readily sorted objects by complexity, but seldom by symmetry. In Experiment 3, subjects were asked to draw each of the figures before sorting them, which had only a minimal effect on categorization. Finally, in Experiment 4, subjects were explicitly instructed to divide the shapes by symmetry or impossibility. Performance on this task was perfect for symmetry, but not for impossibility. Although global properties of figures seem extremely important to our perception, the results suggest that some of these cues are not immediately obvious or salient for most observers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1789-1802
Number of pages14
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2014


  • 2-D, 3-D
  • Categorization
  • Concept formation
  • Impossible figures
  • Object recognition
  • Shape perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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