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Mind Seeks Shape


Explanations > Perception > Visual Perception > Mind Seeks Shape

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



In the process of visual perception, the eye follows lines with the purpose of identifying a familiar shape. For this to occur, a closed loop, an outline must be found, separating out a 'thing' from its surroundings.

In the process of tracing the outline, the mind is constantly guessing ahead. In doing so, it tries to fit familiar patterns onto the shape as identified so far. In doing this, it then helps the line-tracing activity in suggesting where lines may continue to go.


A triangular shape appears around a door. What is it? It turns into a box, eventually with person carrying it.

An artist creates strong lines around key parts of a painting in order to create recognition. Another artist deliberately breaks up outlines in order to cause cognitive instability and confusion.


This process of visual recognition is constant, usually unconscious and done at high speed. Only if we are unable to unconsciously recognize a shape does the conscious mind get involved, pondering 'What is that?'.

Having a library of shapes allows us to test fit shapes and hence guess what we might be seeing. The simplest shapes are triangles, circles, squares, etc. More complex ones include humans, vehicles, houses, and so on. The more familiar shapes will be tested first. Early in the split-second process we are still narrowing down possibilities ('It could be this or it could be that'). Only when the whole outline is detected, with the line going all the way round, can we be sure.

Sometimes a shape is not enough to identify a named thing, so further detail is sought, for example sub-shapes, textures, hues and so on. If the thing cannot be named, a quick threat assessment is done, and if this concludes that no threat exists, the item is ignored. The need to recognize things in real time is a critical constraint.

So what?

When presenting an image, if you want the viewer to recognize it, then ensure they can easily trace the full

See also

Eye Traces Outline


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