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What Is Figure Ground Perception?

Angela Farrer
Angela Farrer

Figure ground perception is a particular area of cognition that relates to how people view certain objects in a two-dimensional space. Some of the most well-known examples of figure ground perception test the function of the eyes and brain in separating partially merged shapes. This type of perception has applications in art and design as a means of training artists to focus on elements of space in a given image. Scholars who study the psychology of perception often use figure ground pictures to demonstrate how competing visual images can send different signals to the brain.

One of the main focuses of figure ground perception is the phenomena of separation between an image's solid background and any foreground shapes that have definite outlines. The most evident samples of this visual trick can be found in black and white drawings or paintings that appear to change when viewers look at only one of the two areas. A famous sample appears as a white vase set against a solid black background. When viewers shift their eyes away from the white area and onto the black, the image seems to change to one of two faces in profile looking at one another. This kind of image can sometimes be used as a test of visual depth perception ability as well.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Some artists use figure ground perception to create works that act as optical illusions. Their purpose may sometimes be to question the reliability of what people see versus what they perceive intuitively. Viewers may see two images that compete with one another and that may even create a subtle urge within the brain to attempt to look at both things at once. This visual competition is designated one of the more common problems with figure ground perception. Some theories of perception claim that people can train their brains to see both objects at once, while other schools of thought dismiss this idea as very difficult, if not impossible.

Certain other ideas of cognition can also result from the study of figure ground perception. Some psychologists report that this act of visual separation applies to other areas of perception such as auditory ones. The same basic principles can apply to studies of how people mentally separate melodies from harmonies in music for instance. This information can also reveal how the human brain reacts to musical compositions that are dissonant versus those that are more pleasing to hear.

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      Woman holding a book