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What Is Gestalt Psychology?

By Nathalia Bustamante , published Nov 15, 2021


Key Takeaways

  • Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that seeks to understand how the human brain perceives experiences. It suggests that structures, perceived as a whole, have specific properties that are different from the sum of their individual parts.
  • For instance, when reading a text, a person perceives each word and sentence as a whole with meaning, rather than seeing individual letters; and while each letterform is an independent individual unit, the greater meaning of the text depends on the arrangement of the letters into a specific configuration.
  • Gestalt grew from the field of psychology in the beginning of the 19th Century. Austrian and German psychologists started researching the human mind’s tendency to try to make sense of the world around us through automatic grouping and association.
  • The Gestalt Principles, or Laws of Perception, explain how this behavior of “pattern seeking” operates. They offer a powerful framework to understand human perception, and yet are simple to assimilate and implement.
  • For that reason, the Gestalt Laws are appealing not only to psychologists but also to visual artists, educators and communicators.

What Does Gestalt Mean?

In a loose translation, the German word ‘Gestalt’ (pronounced “ge-shtalt”) means ‘configuration’, or ‘structure’. It makes a reference to the way individual components are structured by our perception as a psychical whole (Wulf, 1996). That structure provides a scientific explanation for why changes in spacing, organization and timing can radically transform how information is received and assimilated.

How the Gestalt Approach Formed?

Two of the main philosophical influences of Gestalt are Kantian epistemology and Husserl’s phenomenological method.

Both Kant and Husserls sought to understand human’s consciousness and perceptions of the world, arguing that those mental processes are not entirely mediated by rational thought (Jorge, 2010).

Similarly, the Gestalt researchers Wertheimer, Koffka and Kohler observed that the human brain tends to automatically organize and interpret visual data through grouping.

They theorized that, because of those “mental shortcuts”, the perception of the whole is different from the sum of individual elements. This idea that the whole is different from the sum of its parts - the central tenet of Gestalt psychology - challenged the then prevailing theory of Structuralism.

This school of thought defended that mental processes should be broken down into its basic components, in order to focus on them individually.

Structuralists believed that complex perceptions could be understood by identifying the primitive sensations it caused - such as the points that make a square or particular pitches in a melody.

Gestalt, on the other hand, suggests the opposite path. It argues that the whole is grasped even before the brain perceives the individual parts - like when, looking at a photograph, we see the image of a face rather than a nose, two eyes and the shape of a chin.

Therefore, to understand the subjective nature of human perception, we should transcend the specific parts to focus on the whole.

Gestalt Psychologists

Max Wertheimer

The inaugural article of Gestalt Psychology was Max Wertheimer’s Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement, published in 1912. Wertheimer, then at the Institute of Psychology in Frankfurt am Main, described in this article a visual illusion called apparent motion.

Apparent motion is the perception of movement that results from viewing a rapid sequence of static images, as happens in the movies or in flip books.

Wertheimer realised that the perception of the whole (the group of figures in a sequence) was radically different from the perception of its components (each static image).

Wolfgang Köhler

Wolfgang Köhler was particularly interested in physics and natural sciences. He introduced the concept of psychophysical isomorphism - arguing that how a stimulus is received is influenced by the brain’s general state while perceiving it (Shelvock, 2016).

He believed that organic processes tend to evolve to a state of equilibrium - much like soap bubbles, that start in various shapes but always tend to change into perfect spheres because that is their minimum energy state.

In the same way, the human brain would “converge” towards a minimum energy state through a process of simplification of perception - a mechanism that he called Pragnanz (Rock & Palmer, 1990).

Kurt Koffka

Koffka contributed to expand Gestalt applications beyond visual perception. In his major article, Principles of Gestalt psychology (1935) he detailed the application of the Gestalt Laws to topics such as motor action, learning and memory, personality and society.

He also played a key role in taking the Gestalt Theory to the United States, to where he emigrated after the rise of Nazism in Germany.

Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization

Gestalt’s principles, or Laws of Perception, were formalised by Wertheimer in a treaty published in 1923, and further elaborated by Köhler, Koffka and Metzger.

The principles are grounded on the human natural tendency of finding order in disorder - a process that happens in the brain, not in the sensory organs such as the eye. According to Wertheimer, the mind “makes sense” of stimulus captured by the eyes following a predictable set of principles.

The brain applies thes principles in a way that enables individuals to perceive uniform forms rather than simply collections of ununconnected images.

Although these principles operate in a predictable way, they are actually mental shortcuts to interpret information. As shortcuts, they sometimes make mistakes - and that is why they can lead to incorrect perceptions.

Gestalt’s principles

  • Prägnanz: The law of Prägnanz is also called “law of simplicity” or “law of good figure”. It states that when faced with a set of ambiguous or complex objects, the human brain seeks to make them as simple as possible. The “good figure” is an object or image that is easy to be perceived as a whole. A good example of this process is our perception of the Olympic logo. We tend to see overlapping circles (the simpler version) rather than a series of curved, connected lines (Dresp-Langley, 2015).
  • Similarity: This law suggests that we tend to group shapes, objects or design elements that share some similarity - be it in terms of color, shape, orientation, texture or size.
  • Proximity: The law of proximity states that shapes, objects or design elements located near each other tend to be perceived as a group. Conversely, randomly located items tend to be perceived as isolated. This principle can be applied with the goal of directing attention to key elements within a design: the closer visual elements are to each other, the more likely they will be perceived as related to each other, and too much negative space between elements serve to isolate them from one another.
  • Common Region: This law proposes that elements that are located within the same closed region - such as inside a circle or a shape - tend to be perceived as belonging to the same group. Those clearly defined boundaries between the inside and the outside of a shape creates a stronger connection between elements, and can even overpower the law of Proximity or of Similarity.
  • Continuity: This law argues that shapes, objects or design elements that are positioned in a way that suggests lines, curves or planes will be perceived as such, and not as individual elements. We perceptually group the elements together to form a continuous image.
  • Closure: This law suggests that the human brain has a natural tendency to visually close gaps in forms, particularly when identifying familiar images. When information is missing, our focus goes to what is present and automatically “fills” the missing parts with familiar lines, colors or patterns. Once a form has been identified, even if additional gaps are introduced we still tend to visually complete the form, in order to make them stable. IBM’s iconic logo is one example of applied closure - blue horizontal lines are arranged in three stacks that we “close” to form the letterforms (Graham 2008).

The classic gestalt principles have been extended in various directions. The ones above are some of the most commonly cited, but there are others, such as the symmetry principle (symmetrical components will tend to be grouped together) and the common faith principle (elements tend to be perceived as grouped together if they move together).

Applications of Gestalt

Gestalt Psychology and the Laws of Perception influenced research from a multitude of disciplines - including linguistic, design, architecture and visual communication.
Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy was founded by Frederick (Fritz) and Laura Perls in the 1940s. It focuses on the phenomenological method of awareness that distinguishes perceptions, feelings and actions from their interpretations.

It believes that explanations and interpretations are less reliable than the concrete - what is directly perceived and felt. It is a therapy rooted in dialogue, in which patients and therapists discuss differences in perspectives (Yontef, G, 1993).

Design

Design Professor and specialist Gregg Berryman pointed out, in his book Notes on Graphic Design and Visual Communication (1979), that ‘Gestalt perceptual factors build a visual frame of reference which can provide the designer with a reliable psychological basis for the spatial organization of graphic information’.

In essence, Gestalt provided a framework of understanding upon which designers can make decisions. What made gestalt theory appealing to visual artists and designers is its attempt to explain “pattern seeking” in human behavior.

The Gestalt Laws provided scientific validation of compositional structure, and were used by designers in the mid-twentieth century to explain and improve visual work.

They are particularly useful in the creation of posters, magazines, logos and billboards in a meaningful and organized way. More recently, they have also been applied to the design of websites, user interfaces and digital experiences (Graham 2008).

Product Development

The form of a product, as well as other perceptual attributes such as color and texture, are crucial in influencing customer’s buying decisions.

Gestalt Laws have been adopted by product development in approaches that consider how the target customer will perceive the final product.

By considering these perceptions, the product developer is better able to understand potential risks, ambiguities and meanings of the product he or she is working on (Cziulik & Santos 2012).

Education and Learning

In Education, Gestalt Theory was applied as a reaction to behaviorism, which reduced experiences to simple stimulus-response reflections.

Gestalt suggested that students should perceive the whole of the learning goal, and then discover the relations between parts and the whole. That meant that teachers should provide the basic framework of the lesson as an organized and meaningful structure, and then go into details.

That would help students to understand the relation between contents and the overall goal of the lesson. Problem-based learning methodologies also arose based on Gestalt principles.

When students are exposed to the whole of a problem, they can “make sense” of it before engaging in introspective thinking to analyze the connection between elements and craft independent solutions (Çeliköz et al 2019).

Marketing

The Gestalt Principles are applied to the design of advertisement, packaging and even physical stores.

Researchers that investigated how consumers form overall impressions of consumption objects found that they usually integrate visual information with their own evaluation of specific features (Zimmer & Golden, 1988).

More recent applications also analyze how consumer perceptions apply to online shopping environments. The fundamental Gestalt Laws are thus applied to site architecture and visual impact (Demangeot, 2010).

Gestalt Legacy

Most psychologists consider that the Gestalt School, as a theoretical field of study, died with its founding fathers in the 1940s. Two main reasons may have contributed to that decline.

The first reason are institutional and personal constraints: after they left Germany, Wetheimer, Koffka and Köhler obtained positions in which they could conduct research, but could not train PhDs.

At the same time, most of the students and researchers that had remained in Germany broadened the scope of their research beyond Gestalt topics.

The second reason for the decline of Gestalt Psychology were empirical findings dismantling Köhler’s electrical field theory that had sought to explain the functioning of the brain.

Neuroscience and cognitive science emerged in the 1960s as stronger frameworks for explaining the functioning of the brain. Still, nearly all psychology students can expect to find at least one chapter dedicated to Gestalt Psychology in their textbooks.

Similarly, fundamental questions about the subjective nature of perception and awareness are still addressed in contemporary scientific research - with the perks of counting on advanced methods that were not available for the Gestaltists in the first half of the XX Century (Wagemans et al, 2012).

About the Author

Nathalia Bustamante is a Brazilian journalist and educator with 7 years of experience working with youth development. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

How to reference this article:

Bustamante, N. (2021, Oct 13). What Is Gestalt Psychology? Definition and Examples. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/what-is-gestalt-psychology.html

References

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Demangeot, C., & Broderick, A. J. (2010). Consumer perceptions of online shopping environments: A gestalt approach. Psychology & Marketing, 27(2), 117-140.

Dresp-Langley, B. (2015). Principles of perceptual grouping: Implications for image-guided surgery. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1565.

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Shelvock, M. T. (2016). Gestalt theory and mixing audio. Innovation in Music II, 1-14.

Wagemans, J., Elder, J. H., Kubovy, M., Palmer, S. E., Peterson, M. A., Singh, M., & von der Heydt, R. (2012). A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: I. Perceptual grouping and figure–ground organization. Psychological bulletin, 138(6), 1172.

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Zimmer, M. R., & Golden, L. L. (1988). Impressions of retail stores: A content analysis of consume. Journal of retailing, 64(3), 265.

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