Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization

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What Are the Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization?

Perceptual organization
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Have you ever noticed how a series of flashing lights often appears to be moving, such as neon signs or strands of Christmas lights? According to Gestalt psychology, this apparent movement happens because our minds fill in missing information. This belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts led to the discovery of several different phenomena that occur during perception.

The image on the left illustrates the law of closure, which states that objects tend to be seen as part of a whole. There are no circles or triangles in this image, but our minds fill in the missing information to create these shapes.

Learn more about some of the Gestalt laws of perceptual organization.

A Brief History of the Gestalt Laws

Gestalt psychology was founded by German thinkers Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka and focused on how people interpret the world. The Gestalt perspective formed partially as a response to the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt, who focused on breaking down mental events and experiences to the smallest elements.

Max Wertheimer noted that rapid sequences of perceptual events, such as rows of flashing lights, create the illusion of motion even when there is none. This is known as the phi phenomenon. Motion pictures are based on this principle, with a series of still images appearing in rapid succession to form a seamless visual experience.

According to Gestalt psychology, the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Based upon this belief, Gestalt psychologists developed a set of principles to explain perceptual organization, or how smaller objects are grouped to form larger ones. These principles are often referred to as the "laws of perceptual organization."

However, it is important to note that while Gestalt psychologists call these phenomena "laws," a more accurate term would be "principles of perceptual organization." These principles are much like heuristics, which are mental shortcuts for solving problems.

Follow the links below to find more information and examples of the different Gestalt laws of perceptual organization.

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Law of Similarity

The law of similarity suggests that things similar things tend to appear grouped together. Grouping can occur in both visual and auditory stimuli. In the image above, for example, you probably see the groupings of squares and circles as columns.

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Law of Pragnanz

The word pragnanz is a German term meaning "good figure." The law of Pragnanz is sometimes referred to as the law of good figure or the law of simplicity. This law holds that objects in the environment are seen in a way that makes them appear as simple as possible. You see the image above as a series of overlapping circles rather than an assortment of curved, connected lines.

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Law of Proximity

According to the law of proximity, things that are near each other seem to be grouped together. In the above image, the circles on the left appear to be part of one grouping while those on the right appear to be part of another. Because the objects are close to each other, we group them together.

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Law of Continuity

The law of continuity holds that points that are connected by straight or curving lines are seen in a way that follows the smoothest path. Rather than seeing separate lines and angles, lines are seen as belonging together.

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Law of Closure

According to the law of closure, things are grouped together if they seem to complete some entity. Our brains often ignore contradictory information and fill in gaps in information. In the image above, you probably see a white triangle in the foreground because your brain fills in the missing gaps in order to create a meaningful image.

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