A Deeper Truth | Figure Thinking & Ground Thinking
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Figure Thinking & Ground Thinking

Figure Thinking & Ground Thinking

I was thinking yesterday about how I assimilate information into my mind and understanding of things. I am not someone who knows theories and concepts in an accurate-do-good-on-a-test kind of way. When I read various books and theories, they go into what I experience as a full gestalt of thought. I experience my knowledge more holistically than individually. I don’t try and “know” what I am reading in such a way that I can regurgitate it back to someone else very well. I’m not bad at it, it’s just not how I integrate information. When I read, I see images and full life experiences and what I am reading helps to fill in those gaps.

So when it comes to the Gestalt psychology concepts of figure and ground, my way of integrating information is more on the side of ground. I take in the concept or theory and it gets applied to full picture. Ground would be like looking at a painting of some landscape and you took in the whole picture, not any particular aspect. Figure is when we zoom in to one piece, like the tree, or the house, or the stream. It is an attention difference.

Another way of understanding figure/ground is to think of the lens of a camera. If I have the lens taking in the whole environment in front of me with just about everything in focus, I am taking in the ground of what I’m seeing. If I begin to zoom in to something and bring it into focus, the background becomes blurry and secondary for that moment.

It’s not that I don’t ever utilize figure thinking, I do, but my natural tendency is to assimilate information into what I always like to pay attention to, which is the full picture. As I get more knowledgable I am able to more easily and freely zoom in.

I believe other people are more figure thinkers, always zooming in to know definitions accurately, but may ignore the bigger picture at times for the sake of accuracy. I think this is how we end up seeing some things differently, or even arguing about something we might agree on but the focus is different and therefore seems like disagreement.

As we grow in knowledge and experience, we become better at more freely moving between figure and ground. I’m using these concepts a bit differently than they were intended in regards to the internal psychological life of the individual. I’m just addressing the assimilation of information. I think that moving towards wisdom is finding the ability and skill to zoom in and out, to be able to articulate the figure that is calling attention and to be able to take in and see the bigger picture, the full gestalt.

Right now we have a fight between ways of thinking. Some people are more interested in figure, like cognitive theorists, materialists, and other reductionistic ways of thinking. Others are more interested in the full picture, the whole person, the general sense of who one is or how they experience the world. We obviously need both. One is not better than the other. Having an ability to see and know the more full gestalt as well as allowing elements to show themselves more prevalently is a more accurate way to process the world. It is also the difference between a focus that is too heavily on human behavior or one that is too focused on spirituality. We must alternate between the phenomenological aspects of human life on the backdrop of human existence and metaphysical speculations.

I myself value the way I think. I’ll never be a strong figure thinker, it’s just not who I am. I take it all in at once. Even though I pay attention to lots of detail in the world and I do value and enjoy knowing some of the figure that shows up, my tendency is to have a more general sense of things, to incorporate new information into a full gestalt of my experience of the world. It enables me to more naturally apply it to my life and that of others. I might not intellectually be able to break it down right in that moment for a test per se, but I could apply it to someone’s life as that person explained themselves. It would sort of all just start fitting together. It would be the full picture sense that helped me to see the figure in that moment as opposed to seeing the figure intellectually.

Are you a figure thinker or a ground thinker?

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