Inspired by this post, we’ve decided to devote a week to the analysis of studies from the history of psychology.
Gestalt theory hit the psychology world by storm in the 1920s, and the Gestalt school’s unquestioned leader (though probably not the originator of the concept) was Max Wertheimer. While many people have an intuitive understanding of the concept of “gestalt” as the essence or overall meaning of something, they may not be as aware of the Gestalt school’s principles, which were laid down by Wertheimer and others in very specific and concrete ways.
What Wertheimer was reacting to was the early psychologists’ attempts to break psychological concepts down to their constituent parts. He might have objected, for example, to Ebbinghaus’s attempts to remove context from the study of memory. Memory is much more than a rote processing of an array; it functions best when the mind makes associations between items. That’s why a dinosaur expert (or nearly any 5-year-old boy) can remember dinosaur names better than a novice.
Wertheimer saw these connections in nearly everything humans encountered, from musical melodies to arrangements of objects. Take this simple illustration:
What do you see? Do you see ten discrete items, or simply a row of dots? Now about this one?
Is this a row of individual dots, or is it a row of pairs of dots? Most people group the dots into pairs, saying that the dots closest to each other form separate groups. Wertheimer calls this the factor of proximity. But proximity isn’t the only way we group items. Consider the animation below:
At first, you see five pairs, but as some of the dots shift, new pairings emerge. By the end of the sequence, there are two individual dots, and four pairs. The interesting part occurs in the middle. When the dots begin to move, you continue to group them in their original pairings. Wertheimer showed his subjects similar sequences, and then stopped them in the middle, like this:
Even though the dots are nearly evenly spaced by the end of the sequence, most viewers continued to group them in their original pairings. This continued even when the dots were actually closer to the new pairings (at the end of the first animation I showed you) than the original pairings.
There are many other ways that viewers can group objects. For example, here, we see that closed figures are readily grouped together, even when they overlap:
But closed figures, again, aren’t the only way we group objects. Here are three closed figures:
Do you see this as three separate shapes, or as a single curve passing through 7 lines that intersect at right angles?
At an even more abstract level, the structure of an object itself can affect how we see it. Take a look at this series of figures:
The basic shape in Figure 29 can be found in each of the figures. but in Figures 30-32, we tend group the objects differently, for different reasons, making it difficult to see the original shape. Yet the extra lines in Figures 33 and 34 don’t preclude us from seeing the original shape.
Gestalt theory has sometimes been summarized as arguing that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Indeed, this can be true, but Gestalt principles can also do much more than that — they can help us understand which wholes will be perceived based on a given set of parts.
Wertheimer, Max (1955). Laws of organization in perceptual forms. In W.E. Ellis (Ed.), A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Humanities Press. (Original work published 1925).