separating foreground from background: brain mechanisms, school practices Robert Sylwester

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separating foreground from background: brain mechanisms, school practices
Robert Sylwester
Success in problem solving and social relationships requires the ability to separate foreground information from background information. Those who cannot effectively differentiate between the two tend to live aimless and stressful lives characterized by inappropriate behaviors and bad decisions.
Teachers and counselors focus much of their energy on helping students develop the skills that allow them to identify the important foreground elements in a complex setting. Our professional vocabulary is full of terms that relate to aspects of this task—at task, boredom, motivation, hyperactivity, analysis, synthesis, estimating, conceptualizing, outlining ….
Our culture applauds people who can discover foreground information where others see only background—fictional detectives who discover significance in a seemingly insignificant item, successful entrepreneurs who exploit a market niche nobody else noticed. We also applaud people who can meld foreground information into the background—magicians who hide elephants in small boxes, quarterbacks who deceive defensive backs.
We are likewise impressed by our own ability to separate foreground from background, to quickly find and follow the correct signs in an unfamiliar airport during a dash to a tight connecting flight. But we are also amused by the strange things we sometimes do, such as to engage in unimportant tasks when we are overwhelmed by pressing concerns or to play potentially distracting background music while we are engaged in a highly focused activity.
We take such behavior for granted. It is merely part of being human. Perhaps it is, but brain research is now providing a clearer picture of the neural mechanisms that process interest and attention. Some brain mechanisms contain hardwired capabilities and limitations; others require some-to-much environmental input to develop properly. Counselors and teachers who help students to function effectively in a complex society should understand the brain’s attentional system and learn how to improve its effectiveness.
This article will (a) explain how our brain separates foreground from background in response to its continual need to simplify the surrounding
Robert Sylwester is a professor of education at the College of Education, University of Oregon, Eugene.

environment, (b) discuss educational/counseling implications of our growing understanding of the relevant brain mechanisms and processes, and (c) suggest nontechnical explanations and discussion ideas that counselors can use when working with students and parents. The article is not a complete treatment of this complex process but rather a conscious look at a generally unconscious mental process, an introduction to an intriguing issue with many applications. The reading list, composed of recent materials written for general readers, will get the reader deeper into the relevant brain/mind research.
A multitude of molecules and rays continually bombards our body with information about the outside environment. An intricate receptor system absorbs the raw data and relays it to brain mechanisms that interpret the data. To put it simply, our brain translates molecular movement into information, speed into heat, intensity into touch, rhythm into sound, and composition into smell/taste. The rods and cones in each retina absorb the light rays that nearby objects do not absorb, and rainbows and bananas show up almost instantly in the credit card size visual cortexes at the back of our brain.
Because the surrounding environment contains far more information than our brain can process at any given moment, our brain must separate potentially significant foreground information from the less significant background (or contextual) information and focus on the foreground while monitoring the background. The system is fortunately designed to simplify this task. Most of the information that surrounds us does not even make it into our brain (although it may make it into the brains of animals with different needs). For example, both of our eyes face forward, and thus limit immediate vision to information within a clearly defined frame. Furthermore, our visual system is hardwired to respond to only a narrow band of the broad electromagnetic spectrum that radiates within our environment (insect eyes see the infra-red radiation that we feel as warmth). Our auditory system limits its input to 10 octaves (dogs hear high pitched sounds that human beings cannot hear). Our smell receptors respond to only about 30 different odor-bearing molecules (many animals have a more powerful sense of smell).
Within these relatively narrow ranges, our sensory system unconsciously responds with greater intensity to certain environmental properties, such as red over other colors, high-pitched sounds over low-pitched sounds, and sweet and salty over other tastes.
Our unconscious sensory attention focuses most on contrast and our visual system provides a fascinating illustration of an awesomely complex, yet elegantly simple mechanism that uses contrast to help separate foreground from background in our mind. We tend to accept this visual simplification process as being “simply normal,” without thinking about its sensory or educational significance. But it is an example that counselors

can effectively use when working with others to illustrate how the brain carries out important analytical tasks.
Each of the 120 million rods and five million cones in our retina responds to a given level of light intensity that arrives from a tiny unit of our visual field. Rods process the dimly lit, peripheral, black/white elements of the image; the centrally located cones process the brightly lit colored elements. In effect, our retina takes a continuous series of instamatic shots of everything in its current visual field.
An intricate neural network in our eye combines the highly specific information from each rod/cone receptor into an initial regional analysis that compares the light intensity recorded in every small spot of the retina with the average intensity of its immediate surrounding circular area. The information from those areas that contain high contrast within the area is sent to our brain with greater intensity than is information from areas of low contrast. The result is that our brain’s visual system is more attentive to lines and edges than it is to low contrast solid areas. For example, your brain is currently aware of the paper that makes up this page (background), but it focuses its attention on the lines that make up these words (foreground), because each tiny segment of a black line contrasts strongly with the white paper that surrounds it. Combine a row of such individual high contrast areas and your brain will interpret the set as a line.
Long before brain researchers discovered that lines and edges contain more potentially useful biochemical information than solid areas, we had exploited this property of our brain by creating written languages that use vertical/horizontal/diagonal/curved lines to represent words.
And it certainly simplifies recognition and memory formation to focus principally on such elements as the high-contrast lines/edges/con- tours/colors of a person’s face rather than on all the low-contrast information that exists between such lines.
Movement is an important form of contrast, and the continuous firing patterns of our visual system allow both focused and peripheral attention processes to track movement across our visual field. This ability is crucial to survival in animals that are both predator and prey to other animals, and so it dominates their vision. For example, a frog’s visual system responds to moving spots and ignores everything else. A starving frog will ignore a stationary insect. In effect, the frog responds to its environment: “If the spot is small and moving, eat it; if it is large and moving, jump.” How simple life could be.
Contrast is also basic to attention in our other sensory systems: sounds that interrupt silence, shifting tones that create a melody, warm smells that greet our entry into a bakery, and wintry blasts that chill our exit. Experienced teachers who want to quiet a noisy classroom do not ask their students to be quiet, because their speech provides little auditory contrast. Rather, they generally flip the light switch off and on, because that provides a novel visual contrast that will spark student attention.
The contrast inherent in emotionally intense and novel information stimulates our attention. It generally takes time and effort to create a long-term

memory, so our brain uses its attentional mechanisms to hold foreground information briefly within its limited short-term memory buffer while it determines whether/where to store it in long-term memory. The amygdala and hippocampus in the brain’s limbic system play important librarian-like roles as they select potential memories from current foreground information and then determine where to store them within the existing collection of long-term memories (amygdala, selection—hippocampus, classification).
Although the systems that identify basic foreground information seem to be built into our brain’s developmental processes, environmental stimulation plays a major role in enhancing the development and effectiveness of some mechanisms/processes. In one study, kittens placed at birth into a large cylinder that had horizontal but not vertical lines did not respond well to vertical lines after their visual system had developed and tended to walk into posts (Blakemore, 1970). They knew the chair legs were there, but they did not attend to them as important elements in their environment (just as readers tend to ignore the white paper behind these black letters).
Children are born with the capacity to learn any of the world’s 3000 languages easily, but they need the stimulation of adult conversation to master the sounds and syntax of the local language, which are not hardwired into the language mechanisms of their brain. In effect, the environment moves the sounds/syntax of the local language into the foreground and those that are only used in other languages into the background. The cat that had grown up in the cylinder without vertical lines did not respond to vertical lines, and adult Japanese do not easily speak the lah/rah sounds that our language has that were not a part of their language development.
This developmental process is also true of many other problem-solving procedures and social conventions that are not specifically programmed into our brain mechanisms. But our culture has intuitively tended to tune into our brain’s capabilities and limitations and the demands of the local environment.
This suggests that the environment in which we rear and educate children should (a) consciously introduce the fundamental concepts/skills/values that children will need to separate foreground from background in the environment in which they live and (b) focus this instruction on our growing understanding of our brain’s capabilities and limitations.
Our brain’s strengths in this area focus on its ability to estimate and predict. It can anticipate and then rapidly identify key environmental pat- terns/concepts/relationships/values and create acceptable general solutions to ambiguous problems that it confronts. If 100 maple leaves are spread on a table, young students will immediately identify the set as maple leaves, even though no two leaves are identical. Experienced travelers make rapid plane connections in unfamiliar airports because experience has taught them the general organization of airports, the normal location of directional signs, and the ability to ignore almost everything else in the airport.
Our brain’s weakness in this area is its limited ability to be precise. It cannot rapidly and accurately process complex sequences of clearly defined

facts and processes that require sustained attention. Our disinterest in reversing this inability is best characterized by all the dictionary-to- computer technologies we have developed to carry out these boring tasks outside of our skull rather than inside of our brain.
To put it simply, our brain focuses principally on psychological lines, on sensory indicators of emotionally loaded changes that have clearly defined beginnings and endings. And the brain tends to merely monitor the information in between the lines. Births and deaths are noticed, not daily lives, so we relax with routine and anticipate anniversaries. We celebrate novel but not common beginnings, so we watch TV for the rocket’s blast-off and not watch the thousands of plant seeds that are simultaneously sprouting near the launch pad. We are shocked by disastrous but not gradual endings, so we decry a major environmental disaster but not the limited contrast of gradual environmental decay.
The curriculum should help students understand how our brain determines what is currently important and how specific current events can relate to larger life-themes. It does not demean the human spirit to realize that it is more important for our brain to understand the meaning of the line drawings than to carefully color in the areas they encompass. Rather, it suggests that students should learn that focusing on the mastery of a general concept fosters the exploration of its potentially interesting background details. It is a difficult task because society and its schools seem possessed by the importance of background information for its own sake— random facts that are not tied to any significant concept. Those who can rapidly recall the most trivial facts gain the greatest rewards in TV game shows and all too often in our schools’ testing programs.
The curricular challenge for developing foreground!background skills certainly exists. The 1988 presidential campaigns used shrill slogans to force limited emotional issues to the foreground in order to meld other more pressing national issues into the background, and the electorate did not really rise up in anger and demand that the focus be reversed. We live in a world in which the TV anchor person or newspaper headline quickly presents the general concept of the news item, and then the reporters and analysts provide the extended background information that many people promptly ignore.
Use the mixed bag of discussion ideas and activities below to help students explore the elements that determine what is foreground and what is background as they move through life. These ideas and activities are organized around three questions: What useful information do I get from (a) the environment, (b) other people, and (c) myself?
It is important to identify significant information in the surrounding environment that will help determine what is currently important. Almost

everyone knows that black clouds suggest rain, buds announce spring, and a worn path signifies the best way to get somewhere. But people who work intensely with a part of the environment (e.g., geologists, hunters, policemen, doctors) note importance in many things in their area that most people do not notice. Ask your students to interview friends and relatives who have considerable experience with some special area. How do these experts determine important-unimportant, beginning-ending, high-low contrasts? Combine the information your students have obtained into a general plan for developing diagnostic skills.
Compare these results with what the students know from their own areas of expertise. The Nintendo video games might be a good place to begin. The games suddenly place the player into an electronic environment and provide only limited clues about what to do and where to go. The player must determine what is dangerous or helpful in the environment and quickly act on the decision. Students who are avid players should describe how they learned to play the game, how they discovered what is fore- ground/background information, and how they remember what to do under the pressure of game conditions.
Place a miscellaneous collection of objects on a table and challenge students to do such things as quickly identify the heaviest, the one with the most mass, or the shortest; or quickly select any five of the objects and arrange them in some sequence (e.g., from the lightest to the heaviest). Ask the students to describe how they decided which objects to include or eliminate.
Our brains’ ability to attend concurrently to several things increases our ability to separate foreground from background in an area. A mental process called chunking, which groups units of related information into a single named concept, is involved. We do this automatically when we say “Hi, Bob” to a collection composed of head/body/appendages/clothing, but experts in a field can discover relationships that others cannot see. A student may select several other students who share a common property (e.g., all wear a belt or have blue eyes). The selected students need to be challenged to examine themselves and identify the property. A neighborhood walk that focuses on finding examples of a single concept, such as change, blue, rough, or box is a good way of accomplishing this.
Physical growth occurs slowly, with very limited contrast, so that our sensory system does not notice it. Weigh or measure the entire class every Monday morning and graph the weekly total for the class. Over the course of a year, the class may add several 100 pounds of weight and several feet of height, and that will make an impression. Take/compare pictures of students during the first and last week of the school year. Train a fast growing vine up a wall and encourage students to predict (a month or so in advance) where it will be on their birthdays.
Discuss the decisions your local newspaper staff made yesterday about what news was foreground and background and how the newspaper staff used type/pictures/placement/story and length to communicate their decisions. How do supermarkets, TV stations, shopping malls, and the like

use similar elements to attract the attention of customers to things they consider important?
Circumstances can place something into either a foreground or background position. For example, rain is foreground information to someone going outside and background information to someone staying inside. A lawn is foreground information to the person who is mowing it and background information to someone walking down the street. A landscape painting is a foreground picture of a background subject. Ask your students to suggest other examples.
When we walk through the school, our sight tends to provide the foreground information and our hearing and touch the background information. Ask a blindfolded student to walk with another student to some spot in the school, while depending entirely on hearing/touch/memory for information.
Although the nonhuman environment provides important information, we tend to place people into the foreground whenever possible. The photographs we take on vacations attest to that (e.g., Mom standing in front of the Washington Monument). This is especially true in school, where students soon learn that the teacher’s beliefs about what is important dominate events. When the students try to make that decision, teachers call it misbehavior.
Encourage your students to share how they know what you consider to be foreground/background in your classroom. Your curricular decisions, questions, voice inflections, assignments, and rules all provide important clues, but you might be surprised at the far more subtle messages that are given. During my 1st year of teaching, an elementary student said, “You’re going to be angry today,” when he entered the classroom. When I asked him how he knew, he replied, “You’re wearing that gaudy tie. Every time you wear it, you’re angry all day.” Other students standing around agreed and even told me what days I had recently worn it. They were correct; those had been difficult days. I suddenly realized that I observed 30 students, but they observed only one of me. They knew more about me than I knew about any of them; so a tic that had been mere background information for me had become foreground information for them. I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off the tie, to the cheers of the class. Perhaps I should not have discarded the tie, because it was providing useful (albeit negative) information for them; and who knows what unconscious meaning it had for me.
Carefully and honestly examine the tests you give, and place an “F” or “B” in front of every item: “F”—an important/foreground piece of information, critical mastery of the concept, “B”—background information, included mostly to trap the unwary. If you have many “Bs” in front of items, you should realize that you’ve determined who the best students in the class are based on their mastery of the least important information.

Many commonly used classroom activities help students appreciate how students differ in their knowledge/skills/values. Introducing the concepts of foreground/background into the discussion (perhaps within the context of optical illusions) can simplify the task of explaining how our perspectives affect how we sense and value things.
We tend to place people in the foreground and the rest of the environment in the background; we tend to place ourselves in the foreground of that foreground and the other people in the background. We call it self-concept, and it is okay.
It is unfortunate when people see themselves primarily in background terms, extensions of others and dependent on others. They become bit players in someone else’s play. Our brain is introduced to the natural world through its contrasts, its beginnings and endings, lines and edges. Students will discover who they are by freely exploring the dimensions of these same elements in their own lives.
An emerging self does not always assume a foreground position. Everyone cannot simultaneously bat in a baseball game or talk in a classroom discussion. Nor is it always to one’s advantage to become the foreground. Buzzing mosquitoes and speeding motorists soon learn that attracting attention can be risky business. Ask your students to share how they decide whether they will assume a foreground or background position in a given social group, within their family, when participating in a group task, or when playing a game.
Much classroom misbehavior revolves around students’ need to be recognized as foreground, and some students realize that misbehavior is their only area of expertise that will attract their teacher’s attention. The foreground/background concept has a rich discussion potential in issues in classroom management. The concept suggests that classroom procedures and rules become a means for formally assigning a background position to routine activities—that raising one’s hand in a discussion signals the wish to assume a foreground position in the discussion, that a story problem about six girls who each have five apples includes background information that the worksheet problem 6 x 5 = 30 does not contain ….
Our brain is limited in how much it can process at once, but it is remarkable how much simultaneous conscious/unconscious activity occurs. We can generally read a book while listening to music or smelling and tasting food while eating it, but we cannot listen to two songs at once or write letters while playing the piano. Ask students to suggest things that they can and cannot do simultaneously. Explain how competing sensory/motor modalities can interfere with each other, and force one modality to assume a foreground position while other modalities stay in the background.
Although a normal human brain can easily simplify an otherwise confusing environment, we do work with students who suffer from attention disorders and learning disabilities. They cannot easily focus their attention

or conceptualize or use one of the sensory systems or remember. What is simple for most students is almost impossible for them. Brain researchers have developed chemical therapies for some, and educators have developed behavioral therapies for others, and we can anticipate dramatic advances in the years ahead. The challenge of these students will probably always be before us.
Still, the concepts of foreground and background provide an intriguing and useful model for teachers and counselors who want to help students understand how their brain works, even the students with problems. This article sketched out the basic lines and edges of the process. Get out your crayons and creativity and fill in the lines.
Blakemore, C., & Mitchell, D. (1973). Environmental modification of the visual cortex and the neural basis of learning and memory. Nature, 241, 467-468.
Bloom, F., Lazerson, A., Hofstadter, L. (1985). Brain, mind, and behavior. New York: Freeman.
Campbill, J. (1986). Winston Churchill’s afternoon nap: A wide-awake inquiry into the human nature of time. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Changeux, J. P. (1985). Neuronal man: The biology of mind. New York: Pantheon Diamond, M. C. (1988). Enriching heredity: The impact of the environment on the anatomy of the brain. New York: Macmillan
Friedman, S. L., Klivington, K., & Peterson R. (Ed.). (1986). The brain, cognition, and education. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Hubei, D. (1988). Eye, brain, and vision. New York: Freeman.
LeDoux, J., & Hirst, W. (Ed.). (1986). Mind and brain: Dialogues in cognitive neuroscience. New York: Cambridge.
Sylwester, R. (1986, September). Synthesis of research on brain plasticity: The classroom environment and curriculum enrichment. Educational Leadership, pp. 90-93.

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