Introduction to Gestalt Psychology

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During the 1920s, some German psychologists banded together to formulate their own theory of psychology. In particular, Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka developed a great interest in human perception. One of their studies involved flashing pictures rapidly to subjects in their experiments at equally timed intervals to test what the subjects would see. When the subjects reported they saw "moving pictures", the psychologists wondered why they believed motion to be present. The psychologists theorized that humans tend to view "wholes" or patterns and to differentiate objects from a background, even when presented with pictured parts of wholes and partial cues. In other words, humans perceive a whole picture that is more than the sum of the parts shown. "Gestalt", then is a German word that means "whole", "pattern" or "form". Wertheimer, Kohler, and Koffka called their theory, "Gestalt Psychology."

One of the major aspects of Gestalt Psychology is the theory of figure-ground perception. Gestalt psychologists believed when people are shown pictures of items or "figures" against a background, the figures tend to stand out from the background behind them. For example, if we were shown a picture of a piano against a wall, we would immediately notice the piano (object) stands out, rather than the wall (background). Even when humans are shown vague images made of ink shading or spots, they are inclined to perceive a picture of a specific figure. M.C. Escher has produced a wealth of artwork illustrating various Gestalt principles of perception.

Gestalt studies indicated that this figure ground distinction is pervasive to all human senses. For example, when one smells his favorite food cooking as he steps into his mother's home, this is the olfactory version of the figure ground distinction. Or when listening to a band playing and a person is singing, humans will gravitate toward noticing a person is singing. This example illustrates the aural version of the figure ground distinction.

When an image is presented that does not have clear contours, the picture might be interpreted in two distinctive ways. In such a situation, the figure may become the background and visa versa. This phenomenon tends to occur when a person stares at the image for a short period of time.

Similarity-When images are similar in some characteristic, like shape or color, humans usually see the objects as parts of an overall pattern.
Continuity-People perceive images advancing in a particular direction as part of a whole, rather than 2 or more separate entities.
Proximity-If items are presented side by side, people typically group the items together, rather than separately.
Closure-When something is missing in a picture, humans will "fill in the blanks" perceptually, thus seeing a completed picture.

Although the Gestalt Psychology group eventually disbanded in the 1930s, largely due to the surge of Nazism, it laid the groundwork for Frederick Perls' later development of Gestalt therapy.


Morris, Charles. G., 1996. Psychology, An Introduction. Ninth Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

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