What Is Figure-Ground Perception?

Rubin vase illustrating figure-ground perception
Public Domain Image

Figure-ground perception refers to the tendency of the visual system to simplify a scene into the main object that we are looking at (the figure) and everything else that forms the background (or ground). The concept of figure-ground perception is often illustrated with the classic "faces or vases" illusion, also known as the Rubin vase. Depending upon whether you see the black or the white as the figure, you may see either two faces in profile (meaning you perceive the dark color as the figure) or a vase in the center (meaning you see the white color as the figure).

A History of Figure-Ground Perception

The concept of figure-ground perception emerged out of the field of Gestalt psychology. According to the Gestalt approach, the whole is more (or different) than the sum of its parts. The term Gestalt itself comes from the German word meaning "form" or "shape."

During the 1920s, a number of German psychologists including Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler began studying different principles of perception that govern how people make sense of an often disorderly world. Their work led to what are known as the Gestalt laws of perceptual organization.

This theory of perception proposes that people make sense of the world around them by talking separate and distinct elements and combining them into a unified whole. For example, if you look at shapes drawn on a piece of paper, you mind will likely group the shapes in terms of things such as similarity or proximity.

Objects that are similar to one another tend to be grouped together. Objects that are near each other also tend to be grouped together.

While the concept of figure-ground perception is an important principle in Gestalt psychology, it is usually not identified as one of the laws of perceptual organization.

The idea of figure-ground perceptions relates to one of the most fundamental ways that we simplify a visual scene.

How Do People Distinguish Between Figure and Ground?

When looking at a visual scene, people tend to look for ways to differentiate between the figure and the ground. Some ways that people accomplish this include:

  • Blurriness: Objects in the foreground tend to be crisp and distinct while those in the background are blurry or hazy.
  • Contrast: High contrast between objects can lead to the perception of figure and ground. The Rubin vase is one example.
  • Size: Images that appear to be larger will be perceived as closer and part of the figure while those that are smaller will seem further away and part of the background.
  • Separation: An object isolated from everything else in a visual scene is more likely to be seen as a figure versus background.

Examples of Figure-Ground Perception

The "faces or vases" illustration is one of the most frequent demonstrations of figure-ground. What you see depends on whether you see the white as the figure or the black as the figure.

If you see the white as the figure, then you perceive a vase. If you see the black as the figure, then you see two faces in profile. Most people are able to reverse their perceptions and switch back and forth between the vase and faces images.

The artist M.C. Escher famously used this concept to create a number of fascinating figure-ground reversals. His elaborate drawings often include clever visuals that trick the eye and create fascinating figure-ground changes.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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