Figure

An ambiguous drawing which can be seen either as two faces or as a goblet.

You can check the validity of these claims about figure and ground by looking at reversible figures such as the faces-goblet figure (see Figure 2.2). When the goblet is the figure, it seems to be in front of a black background, whereas the faces are in front of a white background when they form the figure.

Evidence that there is more attention to, and processing of, the figure than of the ground was reported by Weisstein and Wong (1986). They flashed vertical lines and slightly tilted lines onto the faces-goblet figure, and gave their participants the task of deciding whether the line was vertical. Performance on this task was three times better when the line was presented to what the participants perceived as the figure than to the ground.

The Gestaltists tried to explain their laws of perceptual organisation by their doctrine of isomorphism. According to this doctrine, the experience of visual organisation is mirrored by a precisely corresponding process in the brain. It was assumed that there are electrical "field forces" in the brain which help to produce the experience of a stable perceptual organisation when we look at our visual environment.

Unfortunately, the Gestaltists knew very little about the workings of the brain, and their pseudophysiological ideas have not survived. Much damage was done to the theory by Lashley, Chow, and Semmes (1951) in a study on two chimpanzees. They placed four gold foil "conductors" in the visual area of one of the chimpanzees, and 23 gold pins vertically through the cortex of the other chimpanzee. Lashley et al. argued persuasively that the unpleasant things they had done to these chimpanzees would have severely disrupted any electrical field forces. In fact, the perceptual abilities of their chimpanzees were hardly affected. This suggests that electrical field forces are of much less significance than the Gestaltists claimed.

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