One of the most inﬂuential movements in psychological history, the Gestalt school of psychology was born when a group of German researchers described the principles that govern human perception of familiar stimuli. At the time, psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt were focusing on attempts to break down human cognitive and perceptual experiences into their component parts, following the lead of chemistry and physiology. The Gestalt psychologists, however, argued that people perceive sights and sounds as organized patterns rather than as discrete components, and the perception of that whole pattern becomes more than the mere sum of its parts.
The German word gestalt can be roughly translated as “whole object” or “whole pattern,” thus these researchers became known as Gestalt psychologists. The best known among them were Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler. They proposed several principles that describe how the perceptual system makes sense of raw sensory information, which they frequently tested and demonstrated through the use of optical illusions, a few of which are illustrated here:
- Proximity: Objects or events that are close to each other are perceived as belonging together. For example, the following pattern is usually described as 3 pairs of Xs, rather than as 6 Xs (although that would also describe it accurately): XX XX XX.
- Similarity: Similar elements are automatically perceived as belonging to a group. The pattern below is usually described in terms of columns of Xs and Os, rather than as mixed rows. The Xs seem to belong together, as do the Os.
X O X O
X O X O
X O X O
X O X O
- Continuity: Sensations that appear to create a continuous form are perceived as doing so. In the drawing on the next page, for example, most people will perceive a straight line crossed by a curving line, rather than two curving lines which both contact the straight line at the same point.
- Closure: We mentally ﬁll in the missing parts of incomplete objects—we may mentally ﬁll in gaps that appear in a picture. In the ﬁgure below, for example, most people will perceive a triangle, even though what is actually depicted is a set of three incomplete circles.
- Common Fate: Stimuli that move together in the same direction, at the same speed, are perceived together. This is why doing “the wave” in stadiums is so popular; to observers across the ﬁeld, it is seen as a single smooth motion by a large object, the crowd, rather than a large number of people moving individually.
The name Gestalt has also been applied to a type of therapy, which has little in common with the perception and cognition research of the same name. Gestalt therapy is an amalgam of ideas from psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, and the work of Gestalt psychologists. Its focus is on the idea that people create their own internal reality, and psychological growth requires perceiving, remaining aware of, and acting on true feelings.
Symptoms of mental disorder are said to be the result of people not being aware of all aspects of themselves, and so Gestalt therapy is designed around creating conditions that allow clients to become more self-aware and self-accepting, thus able to grow again. This often requires confrontation, with the therapist pushing the clients to acknowledge uncomfortable feelings or pointing out inconsistencies in what they say, with an emphasis on the importance of body language in revealing feelings that the client hasn’t acknowledged.
- Köhler, W. Gestalt Psychology: An Introduction to New Topics in Modern Psychology. New York: Liveright, 1992;
- Perls, F. S., and Wysong, J. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Highland, NY: Gestalt Journal Press, 1992.
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