Wertheimers theory of perceptual grouping

As Wertheimer disciple Wolfgang Köhler explained in 1947, Gestalt, in the German language, can mean either the shape or form of an entity or the entity itself. Wertheimer had tried, many years earlier in 1924, to explain his theory by saying,

The basic thesis of Gestalt theory might be formulated thus: there are contexts in which what is happening in the whole cannot be deduced from the characteristics of the separate pieces, but conversely, what happens to a part of the whole is, in clear-cut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole.

Explanation Wertheimer's initial theories related to perception, or how people perceive the world around them and their relationship to that world. Gestalt theory relies upon a basic tenet that Wertheimer had proven with his early perceptual research in Frankfurt in 1910 and 1911: that the human mind is not only capable of, but consistently, perceives things in other ways than was commonly believed at that time. These perceptions were nowhere near as simple, or "elemental," as Wundt and others had described. Nor are they mirror images of what the brain sees, hears, feels, or senses. What Wertheimer actually proved with his stroboscope and tachistoscope experiments was that the human mind consistently creates for itself the perception of motion from a rapid succession of non-moving and separate sensory stimuli. Human beings can see motion where there actually is none simply because, to the mind, it "makes better sense" that way.

Example As noted earlier, an example of Wertheimer's early research would be a set of Christmas tree lights strung around a tree that alternately light up and go dark, creating the illusion that the lights, though stationary, are in motion, and traveling around the tree. Wertheimer termed this mind-trick the phi phenomenon. This ability of the mind to create an illusion of movement is also the primary basis that made the invention of motion pictures possible.

This phenomenon could be dismissed as a simple illusion or hallucination. However, the phi phenomenon is so consistent to human beings' perception that it could not possibly be caused by brain pathology, as hallucinations are. This phenomenon could be categorized as an illusion. Putting a label on it does not answer the fundamental questions that Wertheimer was asking, however. An illusion is often thought of as an inaccurate assessment of a perception by the mind. For Wertheimer and other Gestaltists, seeing this illusion indicates that the mind is "doing its job"—interpreting perceptual input and trying to make rational sense out of it, rather than simply acting like a camera and passively recording what it has seen.

However, Wertheimer's hypothesis went far beyond observing illusions or helping to create movies. He demonstrated that human beings are innately able to experience both the entire event (the string of lights illuminating at set intervals) and the relationship to the whole of each of its individual components (each separate bulb as it lights up). Gestalt theory goes beyond stating that human beings have the ability to do this; it states that the mind has a compelling tendency toward this recognition, thus making the mind's capability a far more complex thing than the functions attributed to it by Wundt. In 1912 Wertheimer published his findings under the title "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement." This research into what has often been called "apparent movement" led to literally hundreds of research papers that further validated Wertheimer's work.

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