Gestalt Psychology 101

Gestalt Psychology explains much about visual perception.

"We do not see the world as it is. We see it as we are." - Anais Nin

Gestalt theory origins

Gestalt theory arose in Austria and Germany in the twentieth century in opposition to the modern and more atomistic way of looking at the world that had been more prevalent at the time. Instead, gestalt theory upheld the belief that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology was founded by Max Wertheimer in the twentieth century.

In some ways it sought to introduce a degree of humanism into the field of psychology, which then had a cold and objective stance on mental health. Wertheirmer's introduction of gestalt psychology was in opposition to Wilhelm Wundt's structuralist psychology.

"Gestalt" is derived from a German word that means "shape" or "form," and refers to the whole or essence of something. The idea behind gestalt psychology is that the mind tends to view things in a holistic way.

Perception and the phi phenomenon

Some of the first gestalt work concerned itself with perception, especially visual perception. The "phi phenomenon," for example, is widely referenced as supporting gestalt theory. Discovered by Wertheimer in 1912, the phi phenomenon is an optical illusion in which stationary objects are displayed in quick succession and appear to be moving despite being still.

The phi phenomenon supported gestalt theory as it demonstrated the importance of the relative whole to complete a picture in the mind's eye.

In other words, even though the individual objects are not moving, the brain perceives a moving picture when observed as a whole.

The gestalt effect then is the human brain's tendency to complete pictures and patterns to create whole forms and recognize global images as opposed to collections of smaller and isolated pieces.

Gestalt principles of grouping

The following list includes some examples of gestalt principles which refer to the ways in which the brain completes visual principles. 

  • Proximity - The gestalt principle of of proximity refers to the tendency to view objects placed together as a group. 

  • Closure - The gestalt principle of closure states that the brain's perception will complete a visual space to make a whole picture when there are missing elements of an image, such as a shape, letter or picture. For example, if one was presented with a picture of an incomplete circle, the brain would fill the missing gap and perceive a circle.

  • Symmetry - The gestalt principle of symmetry states that the brain will see objects as symmetrical and tends to view similar and symmetrical images as wholes.

Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy, founded by Fritz and Laura Perls, is often confused with gestalt psychology, but is not necessarily related, although it, too, concerns itself with the "whole."

Gestalt psychology and other fields

Gestalt psychology is not only important in terms of perception and psychology, but its principles are important to consider in other fields as well, such as visual and graphic design. The above gestalt principles and others are important to consider when creating designs as they assist in predicting how viewers will respond to design.

Gestalt principles have also been applied to other areas of perception, learning theory, social psychology, problem solving and even economics, among others.

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