If you see a hockey player standing in front of the net, you probably assume this is the exact information that your brain had received. If you are at your favorite concert, you probably assume the overly exciting and stimulating images you are enjoying are just automatically sent to your brain from that exact perception. However, the brain is a lot trickier that you may realize!
For example, when you look at a picture your brain is doing a lot of processing at lightning speed. This is called perception, and it’s the process your brain takes to organize, and interpret the sensory information it continually receives. Your brain is actually busy translating the information sent to it by your senses, such as vision. The information the brain receives are an array of shapes and colors on a background of sorts. These shapes and colors are organized into groups for the brain to take and interpret what it receives into something recognizable for us to recognize. The brain does not see the image as we do. It receives; it perceives, interprets and returns the image to us in a manner that we can understand. And amazingly, this is a continuous process that never ends.
This brings us to Gestalt Theory, also known as Gestalt Law. The word gestalt originates from the German language and translates to mean ‘form or shape’, or ‘pattern or configuration’. The Gestalt theory describes the principle of how the brain organizes information into those forms and shapes. Originally, a philosophical term from Aristotle, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ basically refers to how the whole picture, is always greater than the individual parts from which it’s made of, for example the whole cake is always greater than the ingredients, or working together as a team, will always be greater than individual players working alone, however, Gestalt differs from that theory. It states ‘the whole is Other than the sum of its parts’. It is not greater, it is not equal, it is different, and gestalt theory affirms that the whole precedes the portions or parts. In other words, the brain sees the whole image and then deconstructs it into smaller parts and groupings before presenting us with the whole image once again.
Gestalt, as we know originated from Germany, and those most influential to the theory are Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koftka, and Wolfgang Kohler. They are the founders of this Gestalt, which was based on a paper written by Wertheimer in 1912 on the study of phi phenomenon, an illusion of perception in which stationary objects within very close proximity can look as if they’re in motion. This perception ties in with gestalt very well, as the theorists say that instead of our brain perceiving two images, it will perceive the images moving, or in a more detailed term, the brain is essentially filling in the space between the two images. And this is the basis of animation and the motion picture industry. Following the discovery of phi phenomenon, together, the founders developed the school of Gestalt, which has been prominent in the field of psychology ever since.
One of the courses Wertheimer taught at their School of Gestalt was ‘The Psychology of Music and Art’, which brought the theory into many art forms such as fine arts, painting and poetry. Following Wertheimer’s death in 1943, a man by the name of Rudolph Arnheim proceeded with the teachings of the relationship of gestalt with architecture, cinema, and theatre, along with the traditional painting, poetry and sculpture. In fact, music instruction, and fine arts interpretation uses gestalt to this day, including the interpretation of opera.
This is the study in gestalt that focuses on the ‘subjective’ nature of how we perceive conscious experiences in the first person, and the intention of the experience itself. In other words, it does not focus on the actual object, but the sensory experience that the object has on us, such as sight, taste, smell, touch and auditory. Rather than focus on what is at hand, phenomenology focuses on our experience of what is at hand.
Gestalt Theory has a set of principles that enable us to make sense of perceptual units by interpreting shapes and forms into a whole unit.
Figure and Ground
This principle of gestalt explains our ability to distinguish a figure in the foreground from the background, or from the rest of its environment such as a red balloon in amongst white balloons.
This principle explains how we perceive objects in close proximity as being grouped together, such as a cluster of grapes, rather than individual grapes.
This principle focuses on our capability of filling in the gaps to complete a shape, such as an incomplete circle. The brain still perceives this visual object as a circle, even though it’s technically not.
This principle explains how objects similar tend to be seen as either part of a design, or as belonging together. An example of this would be the stars and stripes of the American Flag.
This is the explanation of the ability for the brain to see lines that are continuous, even if there is an object in the middle of the line. For example, we know that if snow covers part of railroad track that the lines of the track are still continuous, even if it actually appears to be two lines on either side of the snow.
In the Gestalt theory, visual constancies also help us to make sense of the visual world around us such as the following principles:
Our brain has the ability to perceive a shape as constant, such as a hat that someone is holding in front of you. The shape of the hat is unmistakable, but if that hat has fallen to the ground and onto its side, we can still perceive the shape as a hat, rather than a misconstrued set of lines and colours.
This rule helps us understand that as we move past objects, we are aware that these objects are remaining motionless, such as trees or poles that we drive by on a highway. They appear to be moving at quite a fast speed; however we know they are not moving at all.
This enables us to understand that objects we are looking at as we are moving further away remain the same size, even though they may seem to appear smaller. An example would be riding on a ferry away from a city skyline, and the further you go, the smaller the skyline appears.
This explains our understanding that the color of an object remains consistent, regardless of various degrees of light illumination.
This principle explains how we perceive an object as having the same amount of brightness under various degrees of light illumination.
The Gestalt theory is widely used in therapy today. Officially called Gestalt Therapy, it is an existential form of treatment that focuses on humanism, and what it is like to be human. It emphasizes the patient as being a ‘whole’ (mind, body and soul), and of the subjective nature of their experience in the now, as opposed to past and future. It has a strong focus on self-awareness, personal growth and the encouragement to reach ones’ full potential. The Gestalt approach is one of promoting a full consciousness of how they feel, think or behave in the here and now.
Gestalt as you can see is a fundamental discovery into perception. Without this perception, our world would be grouped into incoherent shapes, forms, colors, lines and configurations, and perception is an area within psychology that will remain constant regardless of time or change.
- Wertheimer, M. (2014). Music, thinking, perceived motion: The emergence of Gestalt theory. History of Psychology, 17(2), 131-133. doi:10.1037/a0035765