History Week: Gestalt-o-mania!

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).

More like this

I used to be a high school biology teacher, and I noticed that students often found it easier to learn irrelevant information than the information I was trying to teach. When learning the steps involved in the process of cell division, the students simply memorized the pictures in their textbook.…
This weekend, robot cars competed in a challenge that most humans would find trivial: drive 132 miles in 12 hours without crashing. Yet crash, they do. The difficult part isn't so much the steering and acceleration, it's determining the difference between an obstacle you must navigate around and a…
Take a look at this video (click on the image to play). It's pretty clear what's going on -- the green dot bumps into the red dot, causing it to move: But what about this one? With this movie, it's harder to say: some people would say the green dot passes through the red dot, turning red and…
Welcome to the Firstest, Biggestest, Inaugural Edition of The Giant's Shoulders, the carnival of History Of Science! The carnival grew out of the Classic Papers Challenge by gg of Skulls in the Stars. That was so much fun, several of us thought this is something that should be done regularly,…

This is great. I studied psychology in Frankfurt, where Max Wertheimer was teaching and working before he had to leave Germany because of the Nazis. I had a prof, Viktor Sarris, who always got really enthusiastic and excited about showing us perceptual examples and illusions like the ones above. Sarris also wrote some papers about Wertheimer's work; you will find some references on the Wertheimer page at wikipedia.

Actually some people really say that Wertheimer was the origin of the Gestalt movement by describing the phi phenomenon

[Extracted from my post about this item at http://ahp.yorku.ca/?p=460 :
The Gestalt school is quite fascinating, and not very well understood in North America because its reception here was filtered through the behaviorist agenda that was dominant here at the time, and that (mis)understanding has been passed down as "truth" to successive generations. The best history of the Gestalt movement yet written is Mitchell Ash's Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity (Cambridge, 1995). Max Wertheimer's son, Michael, has recently co-authored with D. Brett King a biogrpahy of founder of the movement well: Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory (2004). There are many interesting article about the history of Gestalt theory by two of its primary student: Mary Henle (especially her 1978 iAmerican Psychologist article about Wolfgang Kohler's resistance to the Nazi takeover of his university) and Rudolf Arnheim (espeically his 1986 American Psychologist article on the misrepresentation of Gestalt in the US).

By Chris Green (not verified) on 30 May 2008 #permalink

Thanks for the information, Chris, and thanks for the links all week. I've enjoyed this little project -- maybe we'll do it again next year.


As soon as I saw this I was reminded of George Gamow's 1947 book "One, Two, Three...Infinity" (link follows). The title essay has to do with our innate number ability: we can instantly recognize small numbers of dots, but higher than (three, four, five?), we have to use a different system, COUNTING. I add that if the dots are arranged in certain patterns, hexagons say, we can use memorized pattern-number correspondence.

Perhaps this "factor of proximity" is an innate work-around for our limited number-recognition: it's actually pretty easy to recognize "three groups of three," which is as good a characterization of the number as the slower "counting-up-to-nine" method (think Roman numerals vs. decimal). But it's not as good for further calculations.

I believe there was recently some work showing that chimps share our "small-number recognition" ability, even if they don't know about addition, subtraction and multiplication. What number capabilities do other creatures have?

This is also probably related to the recent discussion of why running your finger along a row, pointing at the objects, makes them easier to count.

George Gamow was quite a guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gamow
I wonder if I can find a copy of 1, 2, 3... I last read it in grade school, and it made a big impression.


By OrchidGrowinMan (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

"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."

Well, gestalt is a regular German word, and it had been used in the context of the psychology of perception by von Ehrenfels a few years before Wertheimer used it. This fact seems to have misled some people into thinking that von Ehrenfels began, or prefigured, Gestalt psychology in some way. However, his work had little or nothing to do with the emergence of Gestalt Theory as a whole new approach to psychology, for which the credit definitely belongs to Wertheimer. As wolf rightly says, "some people really say that Wertheimer was the origin of the Gestalt movement by describing the phi phenomenon." In fact, these "some people" include Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, the other two leaders of the Gestalt movement, who had both served as subjects in Wertheimer's phi phenomenon experiments (published in 1912) before having the experimental hypothesis explained to them and becoming converted to Wertheimer's point of view. Koffka and Köhler (and some of their students too) became much better known than Wertheimer, because they published much more extensively (and because Wertheimer, as a Jew, had problems in getting a good academic position even in pre-Hitler Germany), but they always acknowledged Wertheimer as the intellectual leader and originator of the movement.

The phi phenomenon, incidentally, was Wertheimer's name for what is better known as "apparent motion," the experience of motion produced when a stimulus disappears, but very soon afterwards reappears in another nearby position. It is the principle by which movies work. Wertheimer was by no means the first person to discover this or to study it experimentally (nor did he claim to be). However, he did come up with a whole new theoretical explanation of it in terms of hypothetical electrochemical field processes in brain tissue, and it was this idea that became the core of Gestalt Theory. His extensive series of experiments on the phi phenomenon were designed to support this theory and to refute alternative explanations in terms of such things as unconscious inference and eye movements. Most of the subsequent development of Gestalt psychology grew out of the attempt to apply the field theoretic approach, with its inherent holism, to other psychological phenomena. As neurophysiology the theory was almost certainly false - and perhaps for that reason the neurophysiological aspect gets little attention in most modern accounts of Gestalt psychology, and even in some of the later (and better known, because they are in English) writings of the Gestalt psychologists themselves, where the concept of "field" can easily be mistaken as a mere metaphor - but, as has often been the case with false but "good" theories in the history of science, it led them toward many real insights and discoveries, including the laws of organization discussed in the main post. Köhler (who lived until 1967, long after Wertheimer and Koffka had died) defended the idea of brain fields to the end.

[I know this stuff because I researched it extensively for my doctoral thesis: see section I.B.4, available here, for details, citations etc. Mitchell Ash's (1998) more recent book on the history of Gestalt theory is very good, but I think he fails to recognize the true importance and centrality of the theory of electrochemical fields in the brain.]


Ash, M.G. (1998). Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity. Cambridge University Press.

JIC anybody's still looking, here is a recent article on an innate number system humans have: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080818185209.htm
Basically, we do not require WORDS for numbers (at least up to nine), but there's still a difference between "glancing and just knowing how many" and "counting."

Compare this to George Gamow's work of 1947!

By OrchidGrowinMan (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink