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Gestalt Psychology

Not a lot of people question the reality of what they see. The idea that what their eyes see might just be tricks of the brain might strike them occasionally when they chance upon popular optical illusions. These illusions demonstrate how what we perceive through our visual system is not just electrical circuitry forming an image on our retina, but a complex of our sensory input and prior experiences. This is because the brain is trying to sort this information in a holistic way, using what it already knows about space, organization, colors and contours, and drawing associations to make the most meaning out of new information.

In short, the Gestalt effect is set into motion, which is how the mind organizes and simplifies our world so we can deal with it. Gestalt is a German word meaning ‘form’ or ‘shape’, and was used to describe certain concepts in psychology by Ehrenfels, an Austrian philosopher. These concepts centre around the principle of totality and psychophysical isomorphism. Simply stated, the first means that an individuals experience is an amalgam of all his senses and mental process, while the latter implies that conscious experience and mental activity go together and cannot be separated.

“Since the sensuous is perceptible only when it has form, the unity of the senses is given from the very beginning. ” (Hornbostel). Credit is given to three of Ehrenfels’ successors, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler for founding this concept in psychology. The gestalt theories deal mainly with the visual system, and such the ‘laws’ of perceptual organization include emergence, reification, multi-stability and invariance. Emergence refers to how the mind perceives what it is seeing as a whole, and not in parts.

So when we are trying to make out what an object is, the picture emerges all at once, rather than the parts of the picture becoming clear one after another. Reification refers to the ability of the brain to deduce more than what is actually presented by putting together its knowledge of contours, depth, lighting and organization. An example would be of how a picture on a paper (in two planes) can make us imagine a three dimensional object, like a cube or sphere. Multi-stability refers to those optical illusions where two pictures are presented in one, like the famous Rubin figure/Vase illusion, which is also an example of the figure/ground.

The figure/ground principle presents situations where the mind can perceive one object or another, by alternating what the object of interest (figure) is, and what the background (ground) is. Lastly, invariance refers to the ability of the brain to recognize simple objects even if they are presented in different settings. These laws can be grouped together in the concept of Praganz (German for ‘having meaning’), and basically describe what our brain derives from the visual input it is offered, and how its attempts to make a ‘form’ or meaningful figure out of lines, dots, or objects, enabling it to perceive more than what is offered.

“In fact the phenomena of dreams and hallucinations clearly demonstrate the capacity of the brain to construct complete virtual worlds even in the absence of sensory input” (Lehar). Max Wertheimer, a Czech Jew born in 1980, was working on gestalt theory and conducting experiments with his colleagues before World War I. He was a contemporary of Picasso, although not acquainted with him. However, both the artist and the psychologist had discovered camouflage, and now witnessed how the military hired artists to use this concept extensively during war (Behrens).

The war caused a disruption in his work, but after it ended Wertheimer was appointed as faculty at the Berlin University, where he worked together with Kohler to establish a graduate school which produced famous psychologists who worked further on gestalt and produced numerous publications. When Hitler became Chancellor of Nazi Germany, Wertheimer felt the need to leave his homeland and accepted a post at the New School for Social Research at New York. There he moved along with his wife and children.

A big milestone in the development of gestalt theory was the concept of the phi phenomenon by Wertheimer. This was described in his 1912 paper, Experimental Studies on the Seeing of Motion (Shipley), and revealed how apparent ‘motion’ was observed by viewers after they were shown a succession of alternating still images. No actual motion was shown, and this indicated that the brain had figured that for an object to appear and disappear at point A and then reappear at point B, it had to have moved.

This is manifested in the famous optical illusion of the Lilac Chaser where fixating on a point in the centre of a circle of lilac circles appearing in succession makes the brain ‘see’ a green circle moving at the circumference. Another concept that Wertheimer worked on was luminance versus brightness. The two things are not quite the same, as proved by the Wertheimer-Benary Illusion. In this experiment, triangles that were equally ‘luminant’ were placed in different contexts or backgrounds of light and dark, and viewers perceived them to have different levels of brightness.

As with most gestalt theories, the description of what people saw was adequate, however no explanation was given as to why this phenomenon occurred. Wertheimer kept in touch with his former colleagues, who had also mostly migrated to the US, and worked on the productive and reproductive theories of problem solving in New York. These concepts relate to how people can solve new problems by either thinking them through, or by relating them to similar situations in the past. He died in 1943, just three weeks after the publication of his only book. Kurt Koffka was a German psychologist born in 1886.

His father, a lawyer, and his uncle who was a biologist germinated in him an interest and appreciation of science and philosophy. Although he obtained his early education and PhD from Berlin, he also studies for a while in Scotland which allowed him to improve his English language skills, which came in handy when he moved to the US later and propagated his gestalt concepts. His first published paper was on color blindness, from which he suffered himself. His interest in experimental psychology led him to work with medical professionals. In 1910 he came to work at the University of Frankfurt where he met Wertheimer and Kohler.

Wertheimer, who at that time was studying the perception of motion, had Koffka become a subject in his experiments. Koffka moved to another university in 199 where he continued to work on the same theories and their application in developmental psychology. Before World War I, Koffka had been working with people with hearing impairment, and during the war he worked with the military, helping them to improve their sound localization techniques. He was promoted to the position of a professor, and had his own lab, where he conducted numerous experiments in the following years with his students.

Koffka’s major work, published in 1921, was about gestalt theories and childhood developmental psychology, where he asserted that infants first view the world holistically and only later come to appreciate the sensations such as sights and sound separately. His ideas were well received well in the U. S. where he began to be invited as a guest lecturer at the Universities of Cornell and Wisconsin, and he published these theories in the paper The Growth of the Mind: An Introduction to Child Psychology (Koffka). One of his well known concepts is the Muller-Lyer and Ponzo illusions.

The Muller-Lyer is a picture of two parallel lines of equal lengths with arrows at both ends. The difference is that one line has both arrows pointing inwards and the other’s arrows point outwards. When viewers are asked to comment on the length of the lines, most pick out the one with arrows inwards as longer than the other. According to gestalt, our spatial perceptions make the brain view the line with arrows pointing out as limited, while the other one has the arms of the arrows extending beyond the line, giving it a longer look. A similar result is obtained from the Ponzo line illusion.

A research expedition to Uzbekistan in 1932, which was funded by the Soviet Union, gave him an infection which made him return home. On the way back, he wrote his classic work, Principles of Gestalt Theory which was a summary of his life’s works and amalgamation of his gestalt ideas with their application to the development of memory and learning, as well as political and ethical subjects. In his last years he worked with brain damaged patients at a military hospital and developed a method that has been widely adopted now, to evaluate brain damage. He died of a heart attack in 1941.

Wolfgang Kohler was born in 1887 in Estonia. Soon after his birth his family moved to Germany where he was brought up in environment influenced by his schoolmaster father and scholarly siblings. His interest in music and psychology and education in physics led to his dissertation on the topic of psycho-acoustics. After his doctorate, Kohler joined the University of Frankfurt, where together with Wertheimer and Koffka he worked on developing gestalt theories. During the World War, he was transferred to the Canary Islands, where he continued his observations n apes.

Contrary to the previously accepted notion that animals solve problems by trial and error, he deduced from his experiments on primates that there is actually a thinking process that goes on when some animals are confronted with a problem. Based on these observations he wrote a book called Mentality of Apes. Some of his psychological experiments conducted on the islands also involved drawing associations between sounds and objects. The phenomenon now known as the Bouba-Kiki Effect was originally his work. He showed the islanders two shapes, a jagged spiky one and the other with rounded edges, like a blob.

As the words ‘spiky’ and ‘blob-like’ have a certain harsh and soft tone to them, respectively, so it was with the words that the locals described the objects with—baluba and takiti. This experiment was repeated in South India amongst Tamil and English speaking natives and the results were similar 95% of the time, suggesting again that the brain is able to deduce more than it is offered—in this case a sound from an object (Ramachandran) Kohler came back to Germany in 1920 where he was made Professor at the University of Berlin and later directed its graduate program in psychology.

After a very public criticism of the Nazis and their attitude towards the Jews he left Germany and moved to the U. S. in 1935. He was elected as the President of the American Psychological Association in 1959, after he had spent years at Swarthmore and Dartmouth College as a research professor. He died in 1967. Gestalt psychology came about when behaviorism was a popular school of thought. Behaviorism attempted to explain people’s actions scientifically, with references and experiments involving different forms of conditioning.

It disregarded the mind as having anything to do with how people think, feel or act. When gestalt philosophy was introduced, it was criticized for being descriptive rather than explanatory. However, it has garnered support from distinguished psychologists such as the ones mentioned above, and more, and work still continues to delve deeper into the intricacies of our thought process and perceptions. Works Cited Behrens, Roy R. “On Max Wertheimer and Pablo Picasso: Gestalt Theory, Cubism and Camouflage. ” Gestalt Theory: Journal of the GTA 20. 2 (1998): 109-18. Hornbostel, Erich M.

von. “The Unity of the Senses. ” Psyche 7. 28 (1927): 83-89. Koffka, Kurt. The Growth of the Mind; an Introduction to Child-Psychology. 2 ed. London, New York,, 1928. Lehar, Steve. The World in Your Head : A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience. Mahwah, N. J. ; London: L. Erlbaum, 2003. Ramachandran, V. S. ” Synaesthesia: A Window into Perception, Thought and Language. ” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8. 12 (2001): 3-34. Shipley, Thorne. “Experimental Studies on the Seeing of Motion. ” Classics in Psychology. New York,: Philosophical Library, 1961. 1032-89.

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