The answer to the question ‘what is Gestalt Psychology?’ needs an understanding of how modern psychology came about.
The advent of modern psychology
To understand what is Gestalt Psychology, we need to understand that psychology is a fairly new science. It is a special discipline in many ways. The human mind and behaviour have been a subject of interest for philosophers even as far back as Aristotle!
Although the mind has been discussed by several philosophers as a subject called mental philosophy, psychology as a scientific study of the mind has emerged quite recently. Modern psychology is a science because it relies on the scientific principle.
It evolved into an independent subject in the late 19th century when it became clear that the mind could indeed be studied scientifically, via measurements and quantitative and qualitative analysis of the observed data. Some of the major schools of thought that arose during the study the psychology are –
- Structuralism involved the investigation of the structure of the mind. It is believed to be the first school of thought to have emerged. Structuralists like Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener broke down mental processes into the most basic components. They often relied on introspection to analyze the mind, break it down into parts and understand the mind as a sum of its parts. Needless to say, structuralism had its limitations.
- Functionalists emerged as a rejection of structuralism and it too, relied upon introspection to make their observations. They argued that the mind is a dynamic phenomenon and that studying its structure as if it is something static would be futile. Functionalism instead focuses on studying the functions of the mind and answering the ‘how’ and ‘why’ rather than trying to answer the ‘what’ that structuralists tried doing.
- Behaviourism drew upon the works of B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov, as a school of thought, emphasized measuring changes in stimuli and corresponding changes in responses or behaviour. As can be seen, Behaviorists understood behaviour to be a response to the outside environment rather than being a result of inner processes.
- Another branch of psychology, Cognitive Psychology, studies mental processes that are involved in thinking, learning, perceiving and remembering. Here, the science of psychology overlaps many different disciplines (neuroscience, philosophy, and linguistics) that try to understand these processes via a different approach.
- The psychoanalytical school of Freud focused on the unconscious behaviour of the mind. According to him, the mind was made up of the id (primal, animalistic nature), the ego (the part of our personality that was rational and kept the id in control), and the superego (the part that holds together the core of our personality, out ideals and values).
- Another branch of psychology is Humanistic Psychology. Psychologists like Carl Rogers disagreed with the deterministic approach of behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Whereas these theories treated human behaviour as something that is governed by a fixed set of laws and mechanisms (outside human control) that are determinable, humanistic psychology treats humans as ‘free agents.’ These free agents are capable of controlling their own lives, making their own decisions, and being responsible for their actions.
Although many of these schools made substantial strides, it was clear that the study of mind and behaviour was too complex to be understood completely by any one school of thought. Different theories studied and paid attention to different aspects of the mind and brain.
Many schools emerged, each explaining some aspect of the mind better than the other. Gestalt psychology came about in the 20th century mainly as a rejection of Wilhelm Wundt’s and Edward Titchener’s structuralist psychology. What is Gestalt psychology though?
While the behaviourists studied the mind by breaking down the processes into smaller elements, Gestalt psychology emphasized the need for studying the whole of conscious experience as one single unit. Gestalt psychology says that humans experience things or perceive objects, not as parts, but as unified wholes.
Gestalt psychology builds upon phenomenology which involves the description of direct psychological experience. This way of approaching the subject goes back to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. To find the answer to the question, “what is Gestalt Psychology?” we need to understand why the need for such a theory arose.
Gestalt psychology’s holistic approach has made significant contributions to our understanding of perception and has found applications in several fields. Read further ahead to find out what is Gestalt Psychology.
Wertheimer’s experiments and development of Gestalt Theory
The answer to the question, “what is Gestalt Psychology?” we first need to understand Wertheimer’s experiments that laid the foundation for Gestalt theory. Wertheimer’s curiosity was aroused while travelling on a train and looking at two lights on a platform that was flashing alternatively. Something struck him and he went on to buy a toy stroboscope, an instrument that creates the illusion of movement by quickly interchanging two faintly different pictures.
This stroboscopic movement, called the Phi phenomenon led Wertheimer to question how the prevalent psychological theory at that time, structuralism, could explain it.
Phi phenomenon is a psychological phenomenon. It is a perceptual illusion that is responsible for stationary objects being perceived as moving. Various experiments were done on this phi phenomenon or the phenomenon of apparent motion.
One such experiment involved a viewer watching a screen on which two images were shown one after the other by the experimenter. The first image was a line on the left side of the screen whereas the second one was a similar line that appeared on the right. The images are shown in very rapid succession and the experimenter then asks the viewer what he saw.
Although the viewer saw two distinct images and no continuous motion, the viewer reported perception of motion of the line at the left to right. This same perception of motion was recorded with images being shown at different timing and spacing between the images.
If the time between the disappearance of the first image and the appearance of the second image is too long, the two images appear to go on and off separately. However, when this period between the disappearance and appearance is about 30-200 milliseconds, the viewer gets the sensation that the line moved from one location to another.
Wertheimer interpreted the results as meaning that the viewer doesn’t see the individual or discrete sensations at all. Instead, he sees only the moving whole forms. Now we are one step closer to exploring the answer to the question, “what is Gestalt Psychology?”
Persistence of vision
Persistence of vision was the reason attributed to this phenomenon called the Phi phenomenon of apparent motion. When we see something, its image stays in our mind for a short time even if the object itself has vanished. Thus we perceive motion.
The same principle is at work in the cinema hall. A film is a series of individual images. The frames/individual images change very rapidly and we perceive continuous motion. This forms the basis of the gestalt approach. Read on ahead to understand what is Gestalt psychology.
What is Gestalt Psychology
So what is Gestalt Psychology? Gestalt psychology looks at the human mind and behaviour as a unified whole. Other psychologists thought of dividing the study into stimulus and responses, localizing different functions to different parts of the mind, or dividing it into the id, ego, and whatnot.
An important idea that the gestalt psychologists believed is that the whole of anything is greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt theory builds upon psychologist Max Wertheimer’s ‘Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement.’
Wertheimer, along with psychologists Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka, reported his findings in the Frankfurt’s Psychological Institute. Gestalt psychology is a theory of perceptual organization.
The word gestalt is a german word and it refers to the perception of something that although consists of parts, is perceived as an integrated whole. The German word gestalt became a powerful movement in the 20th century. The answer to ‘what is gestalt psychology?’ lies in understanding the gestalt principles.
Let us look at the gestalt principles of perception one by one. These principles of gestalt psychology may seem rather intuitive to you. Or you may see something that you never thought of before. Nevertheless, to understand what is Gestalt Psychology, it is important to understand these principles.
6 Gestalt Principles
Figure Background Relationship
The first of the Gestalt principle of visual perception is that, often, we tend to divide what we view into two objects, the figure and the background (or the ground), and that we focus on the image rather than the background. The figure-ground relationship is one of the most important principles of gestalt psychology.
Interestingly, our concept of ground and figure, in the same image, can change, and when it does, we observe something fascinating.
Law of similarity
The law of similarity or the similarity principle states a very obvious thing about how we perceive things. It says that we tend to perceive things that are somehow similar as grouped. This similarity could be the same colour, shape, or size of objects.
If given a figure, with three distinct sets of objects, circles, squares, and triangles. Here, the objects were grouped based on the same shape. It can be a grouping based on the same colour or size. This is the similarity law.
The Closure Principle
The principle of closure of gestalt psychology is also an obvious insight into how visual perception works.
The closure principle says that if some elements are part of a closed figure, such elements tend to be grouped.
The Continuity Principle
Gestalt theory states that objects that are aligned or seem to be arranged on a line or a curve are perceived as related to each other while the objects that are not aligned are seen as separate entities.
The law of prägnanz
Sometimes, this law is also called the law of simplicity. It states that when we are presented with some ambiguous or complex systems of objects, our brain makes them appear as simple as possible.
The Proximity Principle
According to the proximity principle of gestalt theory, our brain tends to perceive those objects, which are closer to each other, as related to each other.
While there may be a law or two more (the law of experience, for instance, says that objects that were grouped in the past will be grouped now as well), these alone are enough to see how gestalt psychologists approach the problem of perception. In short, the Gestalt principles of perceptual organization help us understand how perception works.
Gestalt psychologists argue that our overall perception depends on the interaction between many factors. These factors may be our past experiences, current environment, thoughts, feelings, and needs.
Now we know what is gestalt psychology. A major takeaway is that human perception isn’t just about seeing. What we see and how we perceive objects is heavily influenced by our motivations and expectations. Now that we understand what is Gestalt Psychology a little better, let’s see what important contributions it made towards our understanding of the mind.
Contributions of Gestalt Psychology
Having answered the question, “what is Gestalt Psychology?” let’s talk about the important contributions the Gestalt theory made. Gestalt psychology has contributed immensely to our understanding of human perception and psychology in general. Concepts like motion perception, perceptual constancy, contour perception, and perceptual illusions have been demonstrated experimentally.
The results have been recorded and studied rigorously by Gestaltists. One result of these experiments was the Phi phenomenon.
Gestalt psychology is a theoretical structure and technique based on a collection of perceptual rules and grouping laws. It also provides a problem-solving theory based on intuition as well as a theory of memory.
The theoretical framework and the methodological guidelines have reshaped the way research in psychology is conducted. This was in contrast with the twentieth-century investigations which followed the conventional scientific method, i.e., breaking down the object under analysis into parts, to reduce the object’s complexity, that was then studied individually. This was a new way of thinking about the mind.
The transition from perception to memory is a natural one. Only when an object has been perceived can it be recognized and recalled. Therefore, it can be said that the products of the perceptual organization are among those things stored in the memory. The gestalt approach to memory has been worked on by Koffka and by others, later.
Gestalt principles have been applied to economics, theories of learning and thinking (especially productive thinking), in understanding social behaviour, and social psychology in general. Philosophers have gone to apply these principles to understand political behaviour as well as ethics and aesthetics.
Application in design
Furthermore, gestalt principles are applied in the field of design.
- Starting in the 1920s, designers began incorporating Gestalt principles of how we perceive objects in their work. Designers used our perception of things like contrast, colour, symmetry, repetition, and proportion in their work.
- Designers use the figure-ground relationship to create impact by using the contrast between a focal object (like a word, phrase, or image) and the negative space around it.
- Designers create a visual hierarchy by using the principles of perception and grouping. Thus, they ensure that our attention is grabbed by the most important word or an image first.
- Designers place the headlines, captions, and lists based on the principle of proximity.
One of the most important contributions of the gestalt theory is its therapeutical application.
Gestalt therapy focuses on a person’s present life and challenges rather than emphasizing past experiences.
It is a humanistic, holistic, and person-centric form of psychotherapy. Gestalt therapy stresses the importance of understanding the context of a person’s life and taking responsibility. The role of perception is significant in this theory and it revolves around how the person attaches some kind of meaning to the world and his experiences.
Gestalt therapy gives attention to how we make sense of reality. It is important to understand that gestalt psychology suggests that how we perceive reality is heavily influenced by our motivations and expectations.
Gestalt therapy may be used to treat depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or low self-efficacy. It could also help a person facing relationship problems.
Unlike psychoanalysis (psychoanalysis was a more traditional therapy used in the mid-1900s), gestalt therapy focuses on a person and the uniqueness of his/her experience. Gestalt therapy draws on some key concepts.
- Perception is influenced by experience. A gestalt therapist understands that it is impossible to be objective. We are influenced by our environment and our experiences. So, gestalt therapists provide their clients with space to share their truth without imposing judgment which could arise because of their own experiences.
- Gestalt therapy believes that context matters. The therapist would use techniques to make the client more aware of his or her experience and his or her responses to that experience.
- Gestalt therapy places a huge emphasis on the present moment. If the client dwells too much in the past or faces too much anxiety about the future, the therapist will bring back the client to the present. For instance, when a client is processing a particular event or experience, the therapist may ask him about his current facial expression or body language to bring his attention to the present moment.
- Gestalt therapy emphasizes the importance of self-awareness. Gestalt therapists believe that awareness is necessary for healing. To this end, the therapist would use several exercises with the client which will help him open up and share. In the process, the client becomes more aware.
Gestalt therapy makes use of several techniques to help the clients. In gestalt therapy, the point is for the client to explore his or her experiences without fear of being judged.
Rather than taking a passive, learning role like in other therapeutic approaches, the client here takes an active role in challenging the roadblocks that are hindering his healing.
- The therapist may bring the client’s attention to his language and tone. The client’s language may reflect how the client is perceiving the experience and whether he is taking responsibility or passing the blame.
- The therapist may engage the patient in a role-playing exercise so that the therapist may draw out the clients’ important perceptions and meanings. This may involve talking to an imaginary person or having a conversation with a part of himself.
- The therapist will also focus on the patient’s body language. If behaviours like hands wringing, tapping of the foot are seen, the therapist may draw the attention of the client to what he experienced in the present moment to understand what is causing those behaviours.
- While talking about a certain emotion, the therapist may ask the client wherein his body does feel a particular emotion. Sometimes, this could be a ‘pit in the stomach’ or sometimes ‘a tightness in the chest.’ Bringing these emotions to awareness will help the client process them more effectively.
- Creative arts like painting, sculpting and drawing may also be used to help people gain awareness, stay present, and learn how to process the moment.
Gestalt therapy may help a person achieve an improved sense of self-control, better able to be aware of and regulate mental states, improved mindfulness, and increased tolerance of negative emotions. The patient will be better aware of his own needs and will have an increased emotional understanding. Gestalt therapy will help a person be more self-aware and take responsibility instead of dispersing blame. As a result, the patient or the client will grow and be better able to regulate himself or herself.
Studies show that gestalt therapy is at least as effective as other approaches.
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