We handle an overwhelming amount of information in the world by paying attention to the things that we need to see and ignoring the rest. Sometimes an image registers on the retina but we do not need that bit of information and do not process what we see.
Part of the challenge to becoming a better visual communicator is to make sense of the way our minds shape what our eyes see and to start to pay attention to the things that we are tuning out.
Our minds tend to like patterns. Gestalt psychology says that we organize phenomena into meaningful patterns rather than perceive them as distinct parts. This is one way that we make sense of the world. Hence the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Look at the figure below. What do you see? You might say a triangle. But it is actually simply three stars. Our minds in an effort to see a pattern, fill in the lines to make the triangle.
The patterns come from our past perceptions. We know what a triangle looks like and want to see one in the above figure. These are a form of mental shortcuts that help us to make sense of the world. Unfortunately they also prevent us from seeing people as individuals. We may miss out on the truly beautiful because we are so efficient with our sight.
Further, we can't always count on our minds to process accurately what we are seeing. The adage that your mind is playing tricks on you suggests this idea that your mind is making something seem like it is different than it really is.

This is a tendency to see things as we know they should be rather than as the image that registers on the retina.

Our minds adjust to see what we think should be there rather than what is actually there. This is how we understand the idea of depth in a two dimensional image.
Look at the photo below. Hold up a pencil and measure the height of the person in the red jacket. Now compare this to the person holding the umbrella. Although the person in the red jacket is twice as tall, we do not see this photo and assume this person is actually twice the height of the man with the umbrella. Our minds make the adjustment so that we understand that the people in the front are closer to the camera. Or in other words, we "see" the depth in this photo, even though it is a two dimensional image. We know that the person in the foreground of an image is not a giant.
Seshu Badrinath/Pipal Productions

This principle is related to constancy. Context is what makes constancy work, or keeps it from working. When we look at an image, we decide things about it based on what we already know.

We look for the clues surrounding an object that allow us to link sensation of it to our previous, learned knowledge and to perceive it as the size, shape, or color we know it is supposed to be, rather than what it actually is. When we see a photo with a person in the foreground and a bus in the background, our knowledge of the size of a bus is and the size of a person, tell us that the person is not actually larger than the bus. So if an object is juxtaposed with a context that gives false clues people will perceive the object incorrectly. Think about optical illusions here. Here is a link to a Web site describing what optical illusions are (http://www.mindfake.com/what.html). Here is another Web site to some illusions by the artist M.C. Escher. (http://www.geocities.com/SoHo?Museum/3828/escher.html). They give the appearance that things are different then they actually are. The contextual clues lead your mind to form an incorrect perception.
This is the strong motivation for us to find meaning in sensory stimuli. Our minds like to make patterns, even when they are not really there. This becomes an important thing to consider because it means that viewers may link objects in the photo that are not supposed to be connected.
This concept is what causes it to appear that a plant is growing out of a person's head when you place them in front of the potted plant in their office, or that water is shooting out of their ears when you interview them in front of the fountain.
In this photo, the rail appears to be coming out the back of his head. Something that the photographer likely did not see because she was so focused on the subject rather than the background.
Paying attention to issues of figure and ground are key to making sure that closure does not work in a way you do not intend. What we focus on, what our mind decides is important is the figure. What we tune out is the ground or background. Look at these photos. what is the figure and what is the ground?
Seshu Badrinath/Pipal Productions
Keep in mind that the figure is not always the foreground of the photo.
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