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Mind Separates Subject (Figure) From Background


Explanations > Perception > Visual Perception > Mind Separates Subject (Figure) From Background

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When we are looking at the world around us, a key goal is to identify the important figures in our field of view. These will be our subjects of primary attention. In very short order (so short we do not realize we are doing it) we separate out each subject and even decide which is most important.

Everything else is the background. The background is still important in that it gives context and consequent meaning to what the subject is doing.


A news item has a journalist giving a report from a busy street. The journalist is the subject as we ignore the background. But then a passer-by starts looking at the camera and waving. Our attention moves to the passer-by, making her the subject rather than the journalist.

We distinguish a person with a gun. Should we be alarmed? The background of a target range tells us that this is not a threatening situation.


Normally, we are pretty good at distinguishing subject as we trace outlines and examine any textural detail and sub-components, such as the feathers and wing of a bird. Yet sometimes also separation of the figure from the background is not that easy.

The subject may be more difficult to distinguish if there are factors such as:

  • It is partially obscured
  • There is low contrast between the subject and the background (such as both being dark)
  • The subject is unfamiliar and cannot easily be named
  • The texture of the subject makes it blend into the background (such as a camouflaged bird)

In some cases, we do not know which is the foreground subject and which is background. There are a number of well-known optical illusions which play on the difficulty of distinguishing a subject from a background when each may be a different subject. A famous one can either be a black vase or two faces looking at one another.

So what?

If you want to communicate a visual item, make sure it stands out from its background, for example by ensuring a clear and complete outline, with the background in a distinctly contrasting hue. You can also deliberately make the subject not that easy to distinguish in order to cause confusion and increased cognitive dissonance.

See also



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