The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Figure And Ground

The distinction between "figure" and "ground" relates to the fact that perception is relative rather than absolute. That is, our eyes, ears, skin and brain register changes and relationships in the world around us rather than absolute quantities. People, for instance, often talk about an image being "bright" or "distant" as if these qualities were a stable quality or ‘thing’ associated with a particular image. The fact is, an image is neither inherently ‘bright’ nor ‘dim’, ‘colorful’ nor ‘dull’, ‘distant’ nor ‘close’; it is distant, colorful or bright compared to something else - such as its background or another image. All forms of perception juxtapose a "figure" with respect to some "ground." A glass of water at room temperature, for example, may seem "warm" compared to the inside of a refrigerator, but "cool" compared to the inside of a sauna.

What ends up being "figure" and "ground" is a function of our perceptual filters. A camera lens is a good example of a filter that alters our perception of figure and ground. When a lens is adjusted to focus on objects near us, distant objects blur and become "ground." When the lens is adjusted to focus on far away objects, those which are nearer become blurred and part of the "ground."

The phenomenon of figure and ground in perception has been explored extensively by gestalt psychologists. A classic example is that of a picture that either appears to be a light colored chalice on a dark background, or two dark faces against a light background, depending on what aspect of the picture is focused on as ‘figure’ and what is perceived as ‘ground’.

This Picture Can Either Be Viewed As a ‘Chalice’ or ‘Two Faces’,
Depending on What is "Figure" and What is "Ground."

An enlightening experiment demonstrating the impact of figure and ground was done by gestalt psychologists with a group of dogs. The dogs were trained to approach something when shown a ‘white’ square and avoid it when shown a ‘gray’ square. When the dogs had learned this particular discrimination task successfully, the experimenters switched to using the ‘gray’ square in contrast to a ‘black’ square. The dogs immediately shifted to approaching the object in response to the ‘gray’ square (which had previously triggered avoidance), and avoiding the object when shown the black square (which had not been ‘conditioned’ to anything). Presumably, rather than perceive the ‘gray’ and an absolute stimulus, the dogs were responding to the deeper ratio ‘lighter versus darker’ as opposed to ‘gray’, ‘white’ or ‘black’ as being ‘things’.

From the perspective of Systemic NLP, the figure-ground relationship creates a natural reframing process. It provides a powerful way to shift the meaning or impact of experiences in our lives, and to bring out new insights. Many NLP submodality techniques, for example, are effective because they change figure and ground relationships. Changing the color or brightness of certain parts of an internal visual image, for instance, may bring it into the foreground as ‘figure’ or shift it to part of the background.

Processes such as content and context reframing also alter figure-ground relationships to some degree by placing behaviors and experiences within the background of different contextual frameworks. Similarly, a number of Sleight of Mouth patterns, such as ‘Changing Frame Size’, ‘Consequence’, and ‘Hierarchy of Criteria’, operate by shifting figure-ground relations with respect to beliefs and belief forming experiences. An unpleasant situation, for example, may seem awful compared to positive peak experiences or high expectations. The same unpleasant situation may seem actually quite positive compared to a past catastrophe or potential disaster. Likewise, a painful event may loom as an all-consuming figure when perceived within the short term frame of the five minutes surrounding the event. That same painful event may seem almost trivial when perceived against the background of one’s lifetime.

The Foreground-Background Process is an NLP technique, developed by Robert Dilts, which makes specific use of the figure-ground phenomenon in order to help transform limiting responses. The process uses common elements from the background of both limiting and resourceful experiences in order to transfer resources from the resourceful state to the limiting experience. Most change processes and techniques emphasize elements in the foreground only, which is more likely to lead to polarity responses and conflicts.

The Foreground - Background Process

The Foreground - Background process is a method for shifting or reprogramming limiting automatic conditioned responses developed by Robert Dilts in 1987. Conceptually, it is drawn from the notion of "figure" and "ground" in human perception. Our perceptual filters operate to selectively focus on certain aspects of our experience, in a manner similar to the lens of a camera. When a lens is adjusted to focus on objects near us, distant objects blur and become "ground." When the lens is adjusted to focus on far away objects, those which are nearer become blurred and part of the "ground." The meaning and impact that a particular experience holds for us depends upon what aspects of it we focus on as "figure" and what we perceive to be "ground."

Operationally, the Foreground-Background process is based on Ivan Pavlov’s observation of his dog’s responses to ‘combined stimuli’. Instead of his well known dinner bell, for instance, Pavlov also used combination of sounds in this experiments with his dogs. For example, Pavlov explored combining the bell with other sounds (such as a buzzer and a whistle) in order to trigger a salivation response in his animals.

Pavlov found that, with combined stimuli, one of the sounds always appeared to be in the foreground. Let’s say he had conditioned a dog to salivate using a combination of a bell, a buzzer and a whistle. After a sufficient period of pairing the three sounds with giving the dog meat powder, the combined sound might produce ten drops of saliva.

Pavlov Used a Combination of Sounds to Condition Salivation

Pavlov then discovered that if he used the bell by itself, the dog might respond with eight drops of saliva. If he presented only the buzzer, he might get three or four drops of saliva. If he sounded the whistle alone, the dog might only produce one drop or not salivate at all. We could say that the bell (which produced nine of ten drops) was in the "foreground," and the whistle (which produced little or no response) was in the "background."

When Presented Individually, Some Sounds Were in the Foreground
While Others Were in the Background

Pavlov then tried experimenting with the "background" stimulus. For instance, he paired the whistle by itself with something sour or acidic placed in the dog’s mouth. Rather than triggering saliva, the sound of the whistle could be made to produce a suppression of the salivation response.

Pavlov Associated the "Background" Sound With
the Suppression of the Salivation Response

Pavlov then tried combining all of the sounds again. Surprisingly, the dog produced no saliva at all. The effect of the bell and the buzzer, which had both produced a significant degree of salivation earlier, were completely suppressed. The whistle, which had originally been in the background, had come completely into the foreground, overriding the other two stimuli.

When Pavlov Combined the Sounds Again, the Former "Background" Sound Had Come Into the Foreground and Suppressed All the Others

Most of our naturally occurring responses are associated with ‘combined stimuli’. We are bombarded with a tremendous amount of sensory information, which we filter by bringing only parts of it into the foreground. Thus, when we respond to our environment - whether it is with anxiety, calm, fear, courage, frustration, joy or anger - our perceptual filters are often locked on only certain aspects of the experience, while the rest of the sensory input fades into the background. The Foreground-Background process applies Pavlov’s discoveries in order to transform limiting responses by using parts of the experience that are in the background to bring in a new reaction through the "back door," so to speak, of our experiential panorama.

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