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Explanations > Perception > Gestalt Theory > Emergence

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Emergence is the process by which something 'appears', almost as if by magic.

In an image, you may first see only shades and shapes. Only later, after examination, do things within the picture emerge. One moment you cannot see it, and in the next moment things emerge from the background.

Emergence may be slow and gradual, as the main image is pieced together. It can also be sudden, with an 'aha' moment as hidden objects are perceived.

Patterns, as well as objects may emerge. If, for example, you have a set of random dots, you might detect patterns of lines or other groupings.


In the picture below, what can you see? If you look long enough, the objects may emerge.



 The answer is at the bottom of the 'So what' section, below



The critical part of identifying an object is to find its outline. Sometimes this is abundantly clear, but in many scenes there are so many shapes and hues that the boundary of anything is not always obvious. The search is hence a process of pattern-matching against known shapes.

Camouflage seeks to break up outlines, which is why many animals are patched with the colors and shades of their natural environment. Prey want to avoid predators, whilst predators do not want prey to see them.

As a part of ordinary perception, we study what we see in order to distinguish objects which appear to emerge as we stare at them. This helps us navigate the world and spot threats in time to respond (humans have not always been at the top of the predator tree). Our brains are very good at spotting pattern even when they do not really exist, such as when we see faces in the clouds.

Naming is an important part of emergence. When you can name an object, you have detected the full pattern and matched it to an internal comparison. After naming the item, searching for further patterns may stop.

In chaos theory, emergence is the spontaneous appearance of order out of an apparently random background. This may be because, although things are initially laid out randomly, there are non-uniform forces applied to them which shape the emerging order.

So what?

When presenting a picture to people, be deliberate about which things jump out immediately and which will emerge only after a period of study. In adverts, the main product may be very clear, whilst other points of interest and entertainment that produce later smiles can be less obvious (this pairing of see product then feel good has a powerful influence).

(in the example above, by the way, the picture is of a spotty Dalmatian dog sniffing round the base of a tree.)

See also

Figure/Ground, Common Fate


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