Figure-ground will point out a few critical

Figure-ground perception was first discovered by Edgar Rubin in 1915. In this lesson, learn more about figure-ground perception and look at some examples.

What Is Figure-Ground Perception?

Is it a circle or a square?
circle square

Look at the image. What do you see? You might spot a white circle on a black background. If you look at the picture again, you might see a black square with a hole in it (the background of the image is white). You may be wondering how one single image can be perceived in multiple ways.

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To answer this question, we must look more closely at Gestalt theory.Gestalt theory was first developed in the early 1900s by Austrian and German psychologists. Some of the notable founders of Gestalt theory include Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka. The word ‘Gestalt’ means ‘whole’ or ‘form’ in German. One of the main beliefs of Gestalt theory is that something is a whole of interacting parts that can be separated, analyzed, and rearranged in the whole.

In other words, the whole is different from the sum of its parts. This explains why one picture, or ‘whole’, can be perceived as two different images depending on how you ‘arrange’ or look at it. Gestalt psychologists created five laws to explain how we perceive things. One of the laws is concerned with figure-ground perception.

Figure-ground perception was first discovered by Edgar Rubin in 1915. Though Rubin never really considered himself a Gestalt psychologist, his work with figure-ground perception was embraced by its founders and led to the development of a major Gestalt law. According to this phenomenon, when we perceive a visual image, we tend to simplify it by separating it into figure and ground.

The figure is the object you perceive. The ground is everything in the background. So if in the image above you saw a white circle, the circle is the figure and the surrounding black space is the background.According to Rubin, we are more likely to view an enclosed area as a figure if it is surrounded by a larger area.

This could explain why a majority of individuals will view the image above as a white circle, since it is surrounded by a much larger black area. Rubin also believed that if an image has two parts that are considered to have equal status, we are more likely to perceive the lower part of the image as the figure.

One Vase or Two Faces?

The following image is a picture of a white vase.

What do you see?
old woman

Now let’s look at this image closely.

It is commonly perceived as either one of two things: an old woman or a young lady. I want you to spot the old woman. If you are having any trouble finding her, the image below will point out a few critical details that may help you.

Can you spot the old woman now?
old woman only

Now, try to spot the young lady (look at the picture below if you need guidance).

This image depicts the young lady. You can see that her necklace is where the mouth of the old woman used to be.
young woman only

You can see now how easily you are able to switch back and forth between the two by focusing on different aspects of the image. What if you were asked to find both the old woman and the young lady at the same time? You would probably have a difficult time spotting them both due to wanting to separate them into figure and ground.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Figure-ground perception was developed by Edgar Rubin in 1915. Figure-ground perception holds that we tend to separate images into figure, or object, and ground, or background. Some common examples include the famous image of the old woman and the young lady and the depiction of the white vase that can also be perceived as two faces. So the next time a friend shows you an image, try looking at it from another angle. If you find a separate image, you can tell your friend all about figure-ground perception.


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