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Figure-Ground Perception: Definition & Examples

Figure-Ground Perception: Definition & Examples
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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

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
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.

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