Gestalt psychology

It originates from Germany. Although, there is no exact translation of the word 'Gestalt' but common translations include configurations, form, holistic, structure and pattern.

Gestalt Psychology definition and principles

Gestalt psychology was more broadly concerned with cognitive processes, with problems of thinking, learning, and other aspects of conscious experience.

  1. Attacked elemental psychology - accused Wundt of claiming that the perception of objects consists merely of the summation or gathering of elements into some sort of bundle.
  2. Attacked association-ism.
  3. Sensory elements are combined; the elements form a new pattern or configuration. For example, if you assemble a group of individual musical notes (musical elements), a melody or tune emerges from their combination, something new that did not exist in any of the individual elementary notes.
  4. The popular way to state this notion is: The whole is different from the sum of its parts.
  5. Impact of physics - fields of force.

Intellectual Background of Gestalt Psychology

The intellectual background of Gestalt psychology incorporates a broad field of ideas. Gestalt psychology traced its roots to the philosophy of Kant and his balance of empiricism and rationalism. Gestalt psychology used a model of science from field physics instead of Newtonian physics.

The Gestalt psychologists maintained “the radical view that the whole is psychologically, logically, epistemologically, and ontologically prior to its parts. A whole is not only more than the sum of its parts, it is entirely different from a sum of its parts.”

The Phi Phenomenon: A Challenge to Wundtian Psychology

Max Wertheimer was the Gestalt visionary. He promoted Gestalt psychology as a world view. Gestalt psychology grew out of a research study conducted in 1910 by Max Wertheimer. Seeing motion when no actual motion occurred. Wertheimer referred to it as the “impression” of movement. He gave it the name phi phenomenon.

And how did Wertheimer explain the phi phenomenon when the psychology of the day could not?

His answer: Apparent movement did not need explaining. It existed as it was perceived and could not be reduced to anything simpler. In 1921 Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler, assisted by Kurt Goldstein and Hans Gruhle, founded the journal Psychological Research, which became the official publication of the Gestalt psychology school of thought.


Wolfgang Köhler was a prolific researcher, writer, and spokesman for Gestalt psychology. He was a lonely voice against the Nazi movement. In 1935, he came to the United States and actively promoted Gestalt psychology. Psychology must ally itself with physics and that Gestalten (forms or patterns) occur not only in physics but in psychology as well. He Spent seven years studying the behavior of chimpanzees. He recorded his work in the now-classic volume The Mentality of Apes (1917). Köhler suggested that Gestalt theory was a general law of nature that should be extended to all the sciences.

In 1929, he published Gestalt Psychology, a comprehensive account of the Gestalt movement. Kurt Koffka published The Growth of the Mind in 1921. He brought Gestalt theory to developmental psychology.

Fundamentals of Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology is primarily a psychology of thinking. Wertheimer focused on the distinctions between reproductive thinking and productive thinking. Productive Thinking is marked by insight and genuine comprehension. We perceive wholes in the world, and the wholes are organized according to principles of perceptual organization. These processes contribute to the law of Prägnanz. Perceptual organization tends to be as good as possible under prevailing conditions. The Gestalt psychologists viewed learning in non-behavioristic terms. For example, research on transposition suggested that pigeons learn the relationship between stimuli (e.g., “darker than”) instead of absolute stimulus values.

Köhler conducted numerous studies of insight in primates. The notion of insight challenges behavioral perspectives of learning. Koffka applied Gestalt principles to human development. He employed a variety of methods, and he distinguished between the view from without and the view from within. He argued that much of early learning is sensorimotor learning. Children may learn through imitation. The highest type of learning for Koffka is ideational learning, a type of learning that uses language. Koffka argued that even the most primitive phenomena of infants are complex configurations of figure upon a ground. Gestalt psychologists seized on other perceptual phenomena. The experience of perceptual constancies afforded additional support for their views. Asserted that we perceive objects in the same way we perceive apparent motion, as unified wholes rather than clusters of individual sensations.

Perceptual organization Principles

Several perceptual organization principles are listed below.

  1. Proximity:- Parts that are close together in time or space appear to belong together and tend to be perceived together.
  2. Continuity:- There is a tendency in our perception to follow a direction, to connect the elements in a way that makes them seem continuous or flowing in a particular direction.
  3. Similarity:- Similar parts tend to be seen together as forming a group. The circles and the dots each appear to belong together, and you tend to perceive rows of circles and rows of dots instead of columns
  4. Closure:- There is a tendency in our perception to complete incomplete figures, to fill in gaps.
  5. Simplicity:- We tend to see a figure as being as good as possible under the stimulus conditions; the Gestalt psychologists called this prägnanz or good form. A good Gestalt is symmetrical, simple, and stable, and cannot be made simpler or more orderly.
  6. Figure/ground:- We tend to organize perceptions into the object being looked at (the figure) and the background against which it appears (the ground). The figure seems to be more substantial and to stand out from its background.

Gestalt Studies of Learning: Insight and the Mentality

Köhler interpreted these and similar studies as providing evidence of insight, the apparently spontaneous apprehension or understanding of relationships. Sultan finally achieved insight into the problem after many trials by grasping the relationship between the boxes and the banana that was suspended overhead. Köhler’s word in German to describe this phenomenon was Einsicht, which translates into English as insight or understanding. “There is no underlying conditioning taking place” he wrote, “rather, from a certain point on, the animal realizes what it is all about, and from this moment on the resultant behavior is of course perfect”.

Productive Thinking in Humans

Thinking is done in terms of wholes. The learner regards the situation as a whole, and the teacher must present the situation as a whole. He challenged traditional educational practices, such as mechanical drill and rote learning, which derive from the associationist approach to learning.


They attempted to develop a theory about underlying neurological correlates of perceived Gestalts. The cerebral cortex was depicted as a dynamic system, in which the elements active at a given time interact. This idea contrasts with the machinelike conception that compares neural activity to a telephone switchboard mechanically linking sensory inputs according to the principles of association. Isomorphism, a principle already accepted in biology and chemistry. Gestalt psychologists likened a perception to a map, in that it is identical (“iso”) in form or shape (“morph”) to what it represents, without being a literal copy of the terrain. However, the perception does serve as a reliable guide to the perceived real world.

Scientific Method

Gestalt perspectives on scientific method reflect their acceptance of field physics as a model for psychology. They emphasized the physical environment. They used experience to guide analysis in psychology. They started research with phenomenological investigation. They accepted a broad range of methods in psychology.

Mind and Brain

Gestalt perspectives on mind and brain reject reductionistic and linear models of mind. Köhler argued for models of mind based in natural systems. He used models of mind based in the brain. He described models in terms of free dynamics. Köhler advocated isomorphism. There is a structural correspondence between experience and underlying brain processes.

The Influence of Gestalt Psychology

The influence of Gestalt psychology was limited by the scattering of Gestalt thinkers before and during World War II. Gestalt ideas inspired systematic approaches to other topics. Gestalt ideas entered textbooks and mainstream psychology. Gestalt research findings were a powerful stimulus for research and changes in other systems.

Kurt Lewin and Zeigarnik Effect

Kurt Lewin applied Gestalt concepts to individual and social behavior. He emphasized the interaction of the person and the environment. Lewin described life space, including every psychological fact that is influential in the life of an individual at a given time. Life space is dynamic. Objects in the life space may have either positive or negative valence. The interaction of the person and the life space may result in approach-approach conflict approach-avoidance conflict, or avoidance-avoidance conflict. Lewin argued that needs are associated with tension systems. The satisfaction of a need is associated with the dissipation of tension.

Bluma Zeigarnik worked with Lewin to demonstrate the Zeigarnik effect in recall. The Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to recall uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks. Group dynamics is the study of the effects of groups on individuals and individuals on groups.

Lewin studied industrial work groups, educational groups, and casual interest groups.

The Second Generation of Gestalt Psychologists

The second generation of Gestalt psychologists furthered the work of the founders. Karl Dunker studied induced motion, functional fixedness, and other aspects of the psychology of thinking. Hewig von Restorff demonstrated the Köhler -von Restorff effect, describing the increased likelihood of recall for distinctive items on a list. Solomon Asch’s work in cognition, learning, personality, and social psychology carried a Gestalt flavor. Mutzafer Sherif used a Gestalt approach in studies of the autokinetic effect, and in his boys’ camp experiments on groups and prejudice. Other researchers influenced by Gestalt psychology include Edward Chase Tolman, Kurt Goldstein, Hans Wallach, Fritz Heider, Wolfgang Metzger, and Herman Witkin.

Misunderstandings of Gestalt Principles

The complexity of Gestalt psychology has generated several misunderstandings regarding Gestalt principles. Contrary to common assumptions, Gestalt psychology is conceptually unrelated to Gestalt Therapy, the humanistic theory of Fritz Pearls. Contrary to the allegations of Pavlov, the Gestalt psychologists accepted analysis and argued for an experientially guided analysis. If a unit is a genuine part of a whole, then it is a legitimate task of the scientist to understand that unit. Gestalt psychology is not an explicitly nativist approach. Gestalt thinkers argue that nature and nurture are intertwined. They advocated research on three factors that influence behavior: physical forces (called invariant dynamics), anatomical constraints from evolution, and learning. Gestalt psychologists emphasize the role of past experience and present conditions.

Gestalt and Applied Psychology

Gestalt psychology influenced applied psychology. Gestalt psychology influenced Rudolph Arnheim and the psychology of art, George Katona and the psychology of education, teaching, and memory, and Catherine Stern and mathematical education. Gestalt psychology influenced psychotherapy through the work of Heinrich Schulte, Adhémar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein.

Continued Relevance of Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology continues to be relevant in psychology and in science. Fritj of Capra maintains that the new scientific world view contains a shift from the part to the whole, a shift from structure of process, a shift from “objective science” to “epistemic science,” a shift from viewing knowledge as building blocks to viewing knowledge as a network, and a shift from truth to approximate description. The Gestalt perspective is also implicit in several contemporary fields of psychology including memory and cognition, Perception, evolutionary psychology, visual neuroscience, artificial intelligence.

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