A. PRECURSORS OF GESTALT
- 1. IMMANUAL KANT, (1724-1804) .
- Stress on unity of a perceptual act. When we perceive,
we encounter mental states which might seem composed of bits and
pieces (the associationists' and empiricists' sensory elements),
but the mind forms or creates a unitary experience, rather than
fashioning a percept through the mechanical process of
association. This is a position contrary to the very heart of
- 2. HERMANN EBBINGHAUS (1850-1909). While not a
precursor of Gestalt psychology itself, with his work more in the
psychophysical tradition, Ebbinghaus was the first person to
study MEMORY experimentally. He developed the method of
studying nonsense syllables with the apparatus called the "memory
drum." Most of his findings were not surprising -- better learning
comes from a greater number of original learning trials, from a
smaller interval between learning and relearning, from a smaller
list of syllables, etc. He investigated the effects of spaced
versus massed learning, finding that in general, active learning
of spaced material is most effective. Meaningful material was much
easier to learn than nonsense syllables. This was the first time a
higher mental function was studied experimentally.
- 2. ERNST MACH (1838-1916)
- a. In his writings of that time, the physicist Ernst
Mach, whom we recognize in the terms "Mach 1," "Mach 2," etc. for
the speed of sound, considered spatial patterns and temporal
patterns (like melodies) as sensations. In his view, could
consider these sensations independent of their elements. He
pointed out that all science is based on experience. When natucal
scientists observe and record natural events, they do so
through their sensory experiences
- b. .1n Analysis of Sensations (1886). Mach
described properties of spatial and auditory forms. He concluded
that sensations are organized in consciousness to create
qualities of the form that may be novel. A table has a
"form quality" that persists even when the sensations
change. We look at a table from the side or top, but we still see
it as a table.c. Similarly. shapes may be reduced in size or
enlarged. shown in one part of field or another, their color
changed, and they are still perceived as the same shape. German
word "Gestalt" means shape. (Also implications of pattern, whole,
- 3. FRANZ BRENTANO (1828-1919)
- BACKGROUND. Grandson of an italian Merchant. Did his
dissertation in philosophy at U. of Tubingen, "On the Manifold
Meaning of Being According to Aristotle." Became a priest but
published a scholarly critique of the doctrine doctrine of Papal
infallibility, criticized scholasticism, held a favorable attitude
toward Compte's positivism,. and desired to marry. In 1870 the
Church reaffirmed the doctrine of infallibilitty. Brentano had
concluded that based on historical evidence the doctrine was
imposssible to accept.
- ACT PSYCHOLOGY. Became professor of philosophy at U. of
Vienna. Disagreed with Wundt's view that psychology should study
the content of conscious experience. Argued that psychology
should study mental activity. The act of seeing rather than the
content. The process or act of experiencing. It was called "act
psychology" due to his belief that mental processes were
aimed at performing some function (in this he was simialr to the
Functionalists.) Mental acts he wished to study included judging,
recalling, expecting, inferring, doubting, loving, and hoping.
Considered the Wundtian method of introspection forced and highly
artificial. Favored a less rigid, more direct observation of the
experience as it occurred. Brentano hoped to use experience to
construct a core of generally accepted truths.
- CONCERNED WITH THE EXPERIMENTER EFFECT. Noticed that the very
act of observing changes what is being observed. (Four of
Brentano's students were Christian Von Ehrenfels, Carl Stumpf,
Edmund Husserl, and Sigmund Freud, who took his nonmedical courses
- 3. CHRISTIAN VON EHRENFELS.(1859-1932) Extended Mach's
work in Austria. A philosopher, musical composer and performer.
and incidentally. an advocate of the legalization of polygamy. In
the 1890's, he wrote a paper on "form qualities." "Gestalt
qualitaten." A melody or a musical chord is still easily
recognized when shifted up or down into another key even though
every note is different. (Transposition.) Music consists of
organized wholes that are almost disembodied from specific
physical tones. (This formulation is still atomistic is saying
that "form quality" is still another element different from the
other elements. On this basis, some Gestaltists denied that Mach
and Vohn Ehrenfels were their intellectual ancestors. (But
Wertheimer attended Von Ehrenfels' lectures.)
- 5. CARL STUMPF (1848-1936).
- a. Born in Bavaria, Stumpf stuadied with Brentano, Von
Helmnoltz, and Weber. Had a strong musical background. Became
department chair and a central figure at the University of Berlin.
Studies of space perception and the perception of music.
- b. PHENOMENOLOGY. Stumpf coined the tterm. Argued that
the primary data of psychology are phenomena. Phenomenology,
the psychology of introspection he favors, refers to the study of
unbiased experience--experience just as it occurs.
Argued that such phenomena as tones, colors, and images are
either sensory or imatinary.
- c. Also studied auditory attention, analysis, and
comparison. Published his major work Tone
- d. Made observations of speech development in his own children
as well as others and studied the orgins of childhood fears.
Stressed the importance of directly observing children.
- e. Was the first since the ancient Greeks to point out that
the whole is different from the sum of its parts.
- f. Debunked the "Clever Hans" horse that could do mathematics
assertion. Discovered that Hans paid attention to body language
cues from its handler to know what was the correct answer.
- g. There was a bitter controversy raged between Wundt and
Stumpf. Stumpf maintained that to break experience down into
elements is to render it artificial and abstract. Wundt was very
angry that Stumpf challenged his approach.
- 7. OSWALD KULPE. (1862-1915). A student of Muller and
Wundt, and later founded THE WURZBURG SCHOOL.
- a. Muller had drawn attention to the effects of what later
came to be called "proactive interference"--old learning
interfering with the effects of new learning.
- b. Kulpe aimed to develop a scientific psyhchology
that would include complex phenomena such as thinking, judging,
remembering, and doubting. (Wundt believed that such phenomena
were beyond the reach of experimental methods). At Wurzburg, in
1901, Kulpe's students A. Mayer and J. Orth questioned subjects
about the associations that came freely into their mind during
thinking. They reported complex, detailed associations. Their
subjects reported many different patterns and types of
- c. Imageless thought. Kulpe refuted the idea
that thought must have images.
- d. Perceptual set or "mental set." Kulpe
identified this determining tendency affecting what we
- e. Max Wertheimer did his dissertion under
Kulpe, on using word association technique in the determination of
guilt in criminal cases.
- f. Kulpe's student Marbe noticed that in the act of
making judgments, various mental states occurred such as doubt,
hesitation, and searching. Marbe called these conscious
attitudes. Wunde's description of three basic elements of
consciousness--sensations, images, and feelings, were insufficient
to describe these complex experiences. They concluded that
another dimension, meaning, was equally important.
- g. Kulpe and Bryan found that when subjects were shown
a series of numbers or letters, they were better at remembering
what they had been told to pay attention to. They said that their
instructions caused the letters to be "apprehended". (This was
actually similar to Wundt's use of "apperception" for actively
paying attention to something. This presaged work on attention
that developed in the 1960s in America.
- h. Another investigator at Wursburg, Narziss Ach,
analysed the mental processes by which people make
decisions and classified his subjects into different "decision
types," finding that people used consistent strategies that were
different from those that some others used.
- 8. EDGAR RUBIN (1886-1951)
- a. Danish phenomenologist and contemporary of
Wertheimer. Identified the "figure and ground" dynamic.
Emphasized distinction between the figure (the substantial
appearance of the object) and the ground (the general environment
of the object.)
- b. In 1819 he presented the first of the kinds of
ambiguous figures that you see in almost every introductory
psychology book, such as a white vase on a black background that
can equally well be seen as two black heads looking at each other
against a white background.
- c. Perception is selective, he said. We don't just
"see," we "look for" that which is related to our interests.
- d. Pointed out that an object is perfectly flat and
lies in the same physical plane as its environment, we perceive it
as located in front of its environment.
- 9. EDMUND HUSSERL (1859-1938)
- a. Often referred to as the "father of
phenomenology," even though Stumpf coined the term. Studied
with Brentano and then worked with Stumpf.
- b. Pointed out that Brentano's concept of
intentionality deals only with mental acts directed at something
outside themselves. But there is also the knowledge that comes
through turning our attention inward. Husserl used
introspection to examine subjective experience as it occurs,
without relating it to anything else. He called the latter pure
phenomenology. When "phenomenon" describes a mental event, it
means a whole, intact, meaningful experience rather than fragments
of conscious experience.
- c. The methods of the natural sciences are
inappropriate for studying mental phenomena, held Husserl, in the
first clear statement of what later came to be called the "human
science" approach. Did not deny that an experimental psychology
was possible, but said it must be preceded by careful
phenomenological analysis. Phenomenology, he held, could help
psychology clarify the implicit asssumptions and preconceptions
that guide its investigations.
Brentano, Stumpf, & Husserl all held
that psychology's proper subject matter is intact, meaningful,
psychological experience. This set the stage for the appearance of
Gestalt psychology proper.
B. THE BIG THREE: WERTHEIMER, KOHLER, AND
"Three of Carl Stumpf's students," writes
Phil Brownell, ". . . were among those to developedthe school of
Gestalt psychology and believed that people do not experience life in
isolated pieces. The German word for the perception of intact
configurations is "gestalt," accordingly the study of these wholes
became known as Gestalt psychology. It was fundamentally linked to
phenomenology, because these early Gestalt psychologists preferred to
study the mental experience as it naturally occurred to the observer,
without further analysis or interpretation." Students from Germany
have pointed out to me that in German, "gestalt" is not only a noun
but also a verb. One can go in and "gestalt" a situation--that is,
try to grasp it both as a whole and in terms of its constituent
details to get the fullest possible sense of what is going on
- 1. MAX WERTHEIMER --founder of "Gestalt Psychology" as
such. (1880-1943) Wertheimer's personality was very muçh
tied up in the movement. Can't fully understnd Gestalt psychology
without knowing Wertheimer. Wertheimer listened to Von Ehrenfels'
lectures at the University of Vienna. He noted that the qualities
of which von Ehrenfels spoke were characteristics of wholes. For
instance "major" and "minor" in music are characteristics of
phrases rather than of individual tones.Wertheimer asked: Why are
there. both in space and time, such molar entities?
- Wertheimer was a philosopher. A profound man dedicated
primarily to ideas -- not point-at-able research. Not a good
experimenter, not a clinician. but a great thinker. Wertheimer was
a product of the Talmudic tradition. Thought things through to the
tiniest detail. (The Talmud -- not a religious
- But committed, as a philosopher, to science. To applying
scientific method to the study of behavior.
- Looking at the S-R connection, Wert. asked, "What is a
stimulus?" Behaviorists were philosophically somewhat too naive
- On a train from Vienna to the Rhineland for a vacation, as he
was looking out the window at telephone poles beside the track he
notice them behaving very strangely. Sometimes their movement
speeded up, sometimes it slowed down, sometimes they appeared to
be bending forward and backward, and sometimes they seemed to
merge into a single pole. Wertheimer grew very excited. He was
seeing the phenomenon APPARENT MOTION as he looked out train
window. Instead of proceeding to the Rhineland, he got off the
train at Frankfurt. Hen went into a shop and bought a toy
stroboscope, which also produces apparent motion. At the
University of Frankfurt he ran into Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt
Koffka, and out of the collaboration of these three men, the
Gestalt school was born.
- Perception of motion -- phi phenomenon. Can be seen in
a box with 2 slits, light behind each slit.If the light is quickly
shown behind first one and then the other slit, we perceive a
moving light,even though physically there was actually no
movement. Vertical and horizontal line, similar. The physical and
experiential aspect of the stimulus are totally different.
- This study of the phi phenomenon is a phenomenological
approach. (In its simplest sense, the word means
- Not "we put the elements together" to get movement, but to the
observer, apparent movement exists as perceived, and cannot
be reduced to something simpler. We apprehend the sensory
experience itself as movement. That is the form we perceive. Used
the word "Gestalt" for this integrated form.
- Acc. to Gestaltists, behaviorists have been very naive.
Unaware even of differences between physical and perceived
stimulus. Wertheimer asked, "What is the relationship between the
physical aspect of a stimulus and its perceptual aspect.
- What we see is not the details but a new percept. We perceive
relationships which dictate our new perceptions.
- Central ideas: wholeness, interdependence, contexts, the
field. Rather than things "being made of" their parts. Compare an
engine to the collection of parts that make it up. The whole is
different from the sum of its parts. (Not "greater
- There is a direct connection between physical and perceptual
aspects if we take RELATIONSHIPS and PATTERNS into account. With
four dots . .
- Why is each dot perceived as a corner of a sqiare Because of
all th´other dots, their relationships. If four more dots are
added around the perimeter to make it a circle, the dot is no
longer part of a square.
- Details are perceived in contexts, in patterrns, in
relationships to other details (V-- like a detective solving a
mystery, looking for clues.) There is something dynamic in the
pattern of interrelationships. It is not just the details.
- In real life we see not just a bunch of details, isolate4d
stimuli, but meaningful configurations --room, people, etc. Our
actions are in relation to the configuration rather than the
elements. A mailbox when we want/do not want/ to mail a letter.
Excellent illustration of figure ground.
- THIS FIGURE-GROUND RELATIONSHIPS IS VERY SUBJECT TO NEEDS,
INNER CONDITIONS, ETC.
- Opposed rote learning. In Productive Thinking, he
adamently oppsosed rote instruction and problem-solving techniques
that emphasized mechanical application of principles or formulas.
lnstead. recommended considering the problem as a whole.
- Wertheimer's formulation does not, however, mean that the
entire visual field must be organized into a single pattern. It is
possible for there to be a chaotic gestalt, in which things do not
- STUDIES OF PERCEPTUAL GROUPING. He perceived objects just as
he perceived the motion of the phi phenomenon --not as clusters of
sensation but as unified wholes.
- Used collections of dots, lines, etc. so he couldn't be
criticized for including objects whose inherent meaningfulness
would suggest organization.
- PRINCIPLES OF PERCEPTUAL ORGANIZATION: (
PRINCIPLES GOVERNING ASSOCIATION.) W. also noticed that in visual
space indivldual obiects are often oerceived as oarts of iarqer
perceptual units. or aroupings. Developed a number of principles .
Example! SIMILARITY tends to split an assemblage into two
groupings. PROXIMITY leads to grouping. CLOSURE or GOOD GESTALTS.
Refers to our tendency to "fill in" or complete the missing parts
of a configuration to make it perceptually complete.
- PROXIMITY, (tap tap, pause, tap tap)
- SIMILARITY, soft and loud tones
- CLOSURE tendency to complete a figure. Looking for a
hidden face in picture--later Zeigarnik's work on paying the
- PRAGNANZ or "GOOD FORM." The most general of
configurational laws. The principle that all experienced fields
tend to become as clearly and fully articlated as possible.
- SYMMETRY, REGULARITY(In social psychological studies of
rumor, these have been observed to take the form of "leveling,
sharpening, assimilation.") By 1933 Harry Helson had isolated 114
separate laws of Gestalt organization.
- PAUL SCHILLER's (1951) chimpanzee Alpha. Circle with wedge
missing: squares in circle with some missing. Alpha would fill in
open space, missing squares. In humans, doing poorly on perceptual
closure tasks has been found to be associated with right
- (DESCRIBE RELATION TO HARRY HELSON AND ADAPTATION
- 2. KURT KOFFKA. Ph.D from Stumpf
- CONVERGENCE. A compromise on the nativist controversy.
Koffka accepted William Stern's convergence theory that every
capacity is the result of a collaboration of inner and outer
conditions of development.
- LEARNING. Submitted reflex and instinct to Gestalt
analysis. Noted tendency of instinct to work toward some goal. (an
instance of closure) influenced Tolman.
- APPLIED LAWS OF PERCEPTUAL ORGANIZATION TO LEARNING
PROBLEMS. Used Kohler's Chimpanzee results to challenge trial
and error learning. Trial and error vs. insight.
- Koffka said traditional puzzle boxes and mazes forced animal
to trial and error learning because no other approach was possible
under those circumstances. Thus the artifacts of the procedure
were seen as results of the study. An obstacle between the animal
and the goal should be such as to allow intelligent, insightful
- Behavior should be regarded not as separate responses to
separtate stimili, but as governed by a total organismic field of
interacting forces. The self is ortganized into definite but
changing patterns. Spoke of the field of direct experience.
- KOHLER. Also Ph.D. from Stumpf.
- Much more the scientist than Wertheimer.
- Chickens: Shades of gray paper. Sizes of paper.
- Chimps: Looking for hidden studk. Moving box under banana to
- The Mentality of Apes. Animals when faced with problem-solving
situations behave much more meaningfully than behaviorists say.
From Koher's point of view, the Ape is sitting in a corner looking
for relationships which will lead to a solution.
KOHLER'S APES. Worked with chimps at Tenerife in the Canary
Islands off African coast. in 1914 during WWI. In 1924, published
The Mentalitv of Apes. The apes sometimes made simple
inventions. Like Sultan. With a banana suspended too high to reach,
he found a box in another part of the room, moved it over beneath the
banana, and then jumped up from the box to get the banana. But less
intelligent apes often were unable to repeat the action which their
brighter companion had Just performed before their eyes. Rana could
not imitate Sultan. She realized that the box was important, and
jumped up repeatedly from its surface, but without first moving it
into the right position beneath the banana. Once she stood on it in a
jumping posture, then ran over under the banana and iumped as high as
she could, as if trying to connect the box and banana by sheer speed.
Later approached box, moved it in one direction & then another.
at last gave up and sitting on box. Iooked sadly at distant banana.
The crucial relationship which Sultan grasped: move the box toward
the banana and then stand on it.
- In 1922 Kohler moved to Berlin succeeding Carl Stumpf as
director of Berlin Psychological Institute. While there, he
courageously spoke out against the Nazis in his lectures, under
circumstances where other who opposed them suddenly disappeared.
Ultimately, however, he had to flee the country.
BUS, BATH, AND BED. Kohler observed that the solution of
problems is often suddenly presented to us when we are not actively
concerned with them. otten when our eagerness to do mental work is
very small. A Scottish physicist once told Kohler that British
physicists recognize this. often talking about the three Bs -- "the
Bus, the Bath. and the Bed. That~s where the great discoveries are
made in our science."
- 1. Concept of Thinking defined as looking for and grasping
- 2. Organisms will engage in random, diffused, meaningless
behavior ONLY IF RELATIONSHIPS IN THE ENVIRONMENT ARE
- 3. Ehrenfreund (not a Gestaltist). Made a raised rat maze
where the rat could see where it was going. Even if "go to the
right" had been stamped in by repeated trials, if the food was on
the left, it went right to it.
- Thus trial and error learning occurred only if the rat was not
allowed to see the whole field.
- 4. FOR HUMAN LEARNING
- a. Teach children to "discover" relationships by giving them
all the data --or simply have them rote learn in a piecemeal
fashion. BANK STREET SCHOOL in N.Y. tried to teach this way, on
the basis of children teaching themselves principles.
- b. EMPHASIS ON SELF-DISCOVERY. Gestaltists have emphasized the
problem-solving aspect of behavior. Spreading before the learner
all the aspects of the situation--all the data.
- c.In learning, we should encourage this tendency to seek
conclusions. Give the learner the situation, the data -- he will
use it by finding a solution to the problem.
- d. To the behaviorist, the organism is a passive receptacle
into which we pour stimuli and rewards.
- To the Gestaltist, present the organism with "problems crying
for a solution."
- 5. Behaviorism is a "historical" school in the sense that past
experience is emphasized. Psychoanalysis is also a "historical"
school. Thbis is what they have in common. Gestalt is labelled an
a-historical or field-theoretical school. What are the meaningful
situations and stimuli in life now? Existentialists hold a similar
- Gestaltists concede that conditioning exists, because it is a
function of the field.
- 6. We can teach children to be stupid and mechanical by
drumming things into them, or we can open up perceptual
- 7. There is a built-in satisfaction in problem-solving alone.
Don't need a cookie as a reward. Monkeys take apart and p¨t
together mechanical puzzles with no reward other than being able
to do it.
- 8. Kohler tried to lead Gestalt psychology into physiology. In
order to understand perceptual processes. we must study
neurophysiological processes in the brain.
- Our own internal functioning, as well as external stimuli, is
C. ADDITIONAL NOTES ON THE GESTALT
PSYCHOLOGY OF PERCEPTION AND LEARNING
- An entire visual field may look "clear" or "chaotic.'One
person s movements seem "steady". those of another 'erratic",Faces
of some people seem relaxed. those of others tense or empty or
soft. The scientific thinking of the time, which reduced
everything to basic elements. made no provision for such
- ILLUSIONS AND OUR PERCEPTUAL WORLD. Our tendency to organize
perceptions may lead to a perceptual or psychological environment
that is very different from the physical one, as shown in numerous
- GESTALT VS. STRUCTURALISM ~ BEHAVIORISM. Introspection and
behavior are both part of phenomenal world and thus suitable for
scientific study. but by concentrating on minute reflexes and
sensations, behaviorists and Wundtians left out the larger
patterns of behavior and consciousness that are the essence of
mental life. In Titchener's structuralist psychology, perception
was an assemblage of sensations that always had meaning derived
from past experiences. The Gestaltists were less interested in
meanings because they are more or less artificial abstractions
that rarely appear in naive observation.
- MORE GESTALT QUALITIES OF PERCEPTION. Important qualities of
perception include curvatures. movements. slants, groupings.
shapes of all kinds. contours, constancies. chords. melodies,
rhythm, etc. These phenomena are Gestalten. not sensations. with
their own laws and methods of investigation appropriate to them. A
gestalt princlple: When human perceptions have time to do so, they
tend to change in the direction of greater simplicity or
- TERTIARY QUALITIES. These are a kind of prominent quality that
may be retained long after other aspects have faded from memory.
The friendliness of a face is more likely to be remembered than
the width of the nose. the distance between the eyes, etc.
Friendliness of expression is a tertiary quality along with others
best described A voice over radio seems pinched and monotonou. The
face of neighbor's chiId sprightly and gay, etc. Tertiary
quaalities are prominent in art.(In Kelley's 1954 warm-cold
study, a guest lecturer came in and gave a presentation. The
class was given a prior brief introduction, with the single
difference that half the class was told that the guest was a
rather "warm" person and the other half was told that he was a
rather "cold" person. The former group gave the lecture
significantly more positive ratings than the latter.
- When psychologists started to realized that "explaining away`'
of effects like relative brightness or color contrast was not a
legitimate procedure, these facts had to be seen as proof that the
properties of local facts are affected by conditions present in
their environment. That there is interaction in the Perceptual
- FIGURAL AFTER-EFFECTS Gibson: "Figural after-effects":
Curved line then looks straight in opposite direction. Gibson also
made such observations in kinesthesis. a person s perception of
his own movements.
- D. LATER
- EDWARD CHACE TOLMAN was an
engineer-turned psychologist who studied Gestalt psychology in
Germany and then returned to the United States and incomporated
such concepts as purpose and expectancy into his behaviorally
oriented whit rat research.
- KURT GOLDSTEIN was a physiological
psychologist trained in Gestalt psychology. He studied
brain-injured patients in the first world war, and his "Organismic
Psychology" was quite influential for a time. .
- KURT LEWIN applied the Gestalt
perspective to personality theory and social phenomena in his
"Field Theory." He was the central influence in the development of
psychological social psychology (as contrasted to sociological
social psychology) in the U.S.
- FRITZ PERLS, one of Goldstein's
research assistants was a young psychoanalytically trained
psychiatrist who, along with his wife Lore who studied Gestalt
Psychology in Frankfurt, was later to found Gestalt Therapy, which
kept the Gestalt perspective alive when it would have probably
otherwise faded into being a fossil in the history
- Very recently (2003) STEVEN LEHAR at
Harvard and the Schepens eye institute published The World in
Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious
Experience. It brings together Gestalt theory, phenomenology,
physiological psychology, and experimental procedures that are
both painstaking and very clever in a model of visual perception.
I suspect that it may become a profoundly influential work.
to original sources in Gestalt Psychology