Principles of Gestalt psychology

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Explanation Wertheimer did not immediately comprehend all the implications of his initial study. After the publication of his 1912 paper, Wertheimer became actively involved in the German war effort during World War 1. This meant that much of the time from 1914 to 1920 was devoted to research and development on subjects other than Gestalt theory. It was not until 1923 that Wertheimer published a tract further enlarging upon his ideas about perception and perceptual grouping. In reality, what he attempted to do was to look at what the human mind actually does as opposed to what it might be doing.

Wertheimer tried to illustrate his belief that people perceive all things in the world around them in the same manner that they see apparent motion as demonstrated in the phi phenomenon. They perceive things not as a group of separate sensations, but as one unified whole. He attempted to demonstrate this through the use of some elemental illustrations—clusters of dots, dashes, lines, figures, or musical notes— things that functioned as visual or auditory stimuli. He used them to show how the mind organizes perceptual information, whatever sense provides that perception. This ability to organize perceived information discounts the notion that the human mind reacts only to individual stimuli.

Pregnanz Pregnancy (Pregnanz in German), referring not to the word's literal definition but rather to being "pregnant with meaning," is the primary tenet of Wertheimer's Gestalt principles. He believed that this basic standard upheld all the rest. Gestalt theory espouses a fundamental belief that the human mind is innately meant to experience things in wholeness, to compose as complete a perception as possible. This can mean sensing things in an orderly, simple, consistent, and/or symmetrical manner as is feasible. From this primary principle of Pregnanz, all of the other principles emerge.

Example Pregnanz is exemplified by a line of boldface print showing the capital letters "A B C." Each letter, not completely closed, is displayed above boldface numbers "12 13 14." The demonstration reveals that the broken-line "B" is identical to the "13." However, the common perception is to see it as a "B" when it is placed with "A" and "C," and as a "13" when grouped with the "12" and "14."

Proximity Proximity is the premise that portions of an entire item which are physically close to each other will be seen as belonging together.

Example When "tap-tap, pause, tap-tap, pause, tap-tap" is heard, the listener will normally relate the two taps as belonging together rather than last tap of each section belonging with the first tap after the pause.

Symmetry Symmetry is the tendency to disregard proximity in favor of what the human mind observes to be a symmetrical relationship.

In spite of the possibility that these should be grouped by closeness, or proximity, the mind quickly sees that the brackets are symmetrical and that the principle of symmetry overrules proximity.

Similarity Similarity is the concept that portions of the entire item that appear to be alike will be grouped together by the mind.

Example If dots of a certain shape or color are included in a larger pattern of dots, they will be distinguished as a separate portion of the larger pattern.

Closure Closure is the inclination of the mind to complete the stimulus, whether it is a visual illustration or something we hear. (Wertheimer also noted that there is anxiety until the stimulus is "closed.")

Examples If a person is given a picture to look at which has missing lines here or there, as some cartoons or caricatures are intentionally drawn, there is an inclination for the viewer to not consciously "see" the picture as incomplete. Instead the viewer will unconsciously fill in the missing features.

Wertheimer himself gave a more humorous example of closure that shows the anxiety preceding completion. It was one he often proved in restaurants after he and his guests had finished dining. It was found that the waiter without fail knew the exact amount of the dinner check if asked the amount prior to being paid. Yet if he was called back to the table a few moments after being paid and again asked the amount, the waiter would invariably be unable to remember how much had been owed.

Continuity Continuity is the tendency to see things as continuous, rather than stopping at certain points and then again going forward.

Example The simplest example of this principle is two intersecting lines that are viewed as intersecting with, and crossing, each other rather than perceiving this as two angular merging points.

Figure-ground This principle was borrowed from the Danish phenomenologist Rubin, and is a classic in the psychology of perception. It involves being able to see two separate visions within the same picture. However, the human mind apparently is not geared to perceive both of them simultaneously. Perception, it was discovered, is selective. The perception portions of the brain tend to make one "picture" the foreground and the other the background.

Examples The classic illustration of figure-ground is Rubin's "Vase." It is either a black Grecian urn, or two faces in profile looking at each other.

Another common example of this principle is the tendency of most people to focus upon the recognized face against a number of unknown people in a group picture, making that face the foreground and the unrecognized faces the background.

Many more of these Gestalt principles would be developed by Wertheimer's followers. They would involve not only perception, but also memory and learning. By 1933 it was estimated that there were 114 separate "laws" or principles.

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