Originating in the work of Max Wertheimer, Gestalt psychology formed partially as a response to the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt. While Wundt was interested in breaking down psychological matters into their smallest possible part, the Gestalt psychologists were instead interested in looking at the totality of the mind and behavior. The guiding principle behind the Gestalt movement was that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

The development of Gestalt psychology was influenced in part by Wertheimer's observations one day at a train station. He purchased a toy stroboscope which displayed pictures in a rapid sequence to mimic the appearing movement. He later proposed the concept of the Phi phenomenon in which flashing lights in sequence can lead to what is known as apparent motion.1

In other words, we perceive movement where there is none. Movies are one example of apparent motion. Through a sequence of still frames, the illusion of movement is created.

"The fundamental 'formula' of Gestalt theory might be expressed in this way,” Max Wertheimer wrote. "There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes."

Max Wertheimer was born in Prague on April 15, 1880.  His father was a teacher and the director at a commercial school.  Max studied law for more than two years, but decided he preferred philosophy.  He left to study in Berlin, where he took classes from Stumpf, then got his doctoral degree (summa cum laude) from Külpe and the University of Würzburg in 1904.

In 1910, he went to the University of Frankfurt’s Psychological Institute.  While on vacation that same year, he became interested in the perceptions he experienced on a train.  While stopped at the station, he bought a toy stroboscope -- a spinning drum with slots to look through and pictures on the inside, sort of a primitive movie machine or sophisticated flip book.

At Frankfurt, his former teacher Friedrich Schumann, now there as well,  gave him the use of a tachistoscope to study the effect.  His first subjects were two younger assistants, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka.  They would become his lifelong partners.

He published his seminal paper in 1912:  "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement."  That year, he was offered a lectureship at the University of Frankfurt.  In 1916, he moved to Berlin, and in 1922 was made an assistant professor there.  In 1925, he came back to Frankfurt, this time as a professor.

In 1933, he moved to the United States to escape the troubles in Germany.  The next year, he began teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City.  While there, he wrote his best known book, Productive Thinking, which was published posthumously by his son, Michael Wertheimer, a successful psychologist in his own right.  He died October 12, 1943 of a coronary embolism at his home in New York.

Kurt Koffka was born March 18, 1886, in Berlin.  He received his PhD from the University of Berlin in 1909, and, just like Köhler, became an assistant at Frankfurt. In 1911, he moved to the University of Giessen, where he taught till 1927.  While there, he wrote Growth of the Mind:  An Introduction to Child Psychology (1921).  In 1922, he wrote an article for Psychological Bulletin which introduced the Gestalt program to readers in the U.S.

Working with Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka helped establish the theories of Gestalt psychology. It was Koffka who promoted this new psychology in Europe and introduced it to the United States. He was responsible for systematizing Gestalt psychology into a coherent body of theories. He extended Gestalt theories to developmental psychology, and his ideas about perception, interpretation, and learning influenced American educational theories and policies.

The Theory

Gestalt psychology is based on the observation that we often experience things that are not a part of our simple sensations.  The original observation was Wertheimer’s, when he noted that we perceive motion where there is nothing more than a rapid sequence of individual sensory events.  This is what he saw in the toy stroboscope he bought at the Frankfurt train station, and what he saw in his laboratory when he experimented with lights flashing in rapid succession (like the Christmas lights that appear to course around the tree, or the fancy neon signs in Las Vegas that seem to move).  The effect is called apparent motion, and it is actually the basic principle of motion pictures.

If we see what is not there, what is it that we are seeing?  You could call it an illusion, but it's not an hallucination.  Wetheimer explained that you are seeing an effect of the whole event, not contained in the sum of the parts.  We see a coursing string of lights, even though only one light lights at a time, because the whole event contains relationships among the individual lights that we experience as well.

Furthermore, say the Gestalt psychologists, we are built to experience the structured whole as well as the individual sensations.  And not only do we have the ability to do so, we have a strong tendency to do so.  We even add structure to events which do not have gestalt structural qualities.

In perception, there are many organizing principles called gestalt laws.  The most general version is called the law of prägnanz.  Prägnanz is German for pregnant, but in the sense of pregnant with meaning, rather than pregnant with child.  This law says that we are innately driven to experience things in as good a gestalt as possible. “Good” can mean many things here, such as regular, orderly, simple, symmetrical, and so on, which then refer to specific gestalt laws.

For example, a set of dots outlining the shape of a star is likely to be perceived as a star, not as a set of dots.  We tend to complete the figure, make it the way it “should” be, finish it.  Like we somehow manage to see this as a "B"...

The law of closure says that, if something is missing in an otherwise complete figure, we will tend to add it.  A triangle, for example, with a small part of its edge missing, will still be seen as a triangle.  We will “close” the gap.

The law of similarity says that we will tend to group similar items together, to see them as forming a gestalt, within a larger form.  Here is a simple typographic example:

It is just natural for us to see the o’s as a line within a field of x’s.

Another law is the law of proximity.  Things that are close together as seen as belonging together.  For example...

You are much more likely to see three lines of close-together *’s than 14 vertical collections of 3 *’s each.

Next, there’s the law of symmetry.  Take a look at this example:

Despite the pressure of proximity to group the brackets nearest each other together, symmetry overwhelms our perception and makes us see them as pairs of symmetrical brackets.

Another law is the law of continuity.  When we can see a line, for example, as continuing through another line, rather than stopping and starting, we will do so, as in this example, which we see as composed of two lines, not as a combination of two angles...:

Figure-ground is another Gestalt psychology principle.  It was first introduced by the Danish phenomenologist Edgar Rubin (1886-1951).  The classic example is this one...

Basically, we seem to have an innate tendency to pereive one aspect of an event as the figure or fore-ground and the other as the ground or back-ground.  There is only one image here, and yet, by changing nothing but our attitude, we can see two different things.  It doesn’t even seem to be possible to see them both at the same time!

But the gestalt principles are by no means restricted to perception -- that’s just where they were first noticed.  Take, for example, memory.  That too seems to work by these laws.  If you see an irregular saw-tooth figure, it is likely that your memory will straighten it out for you a bit.  Or, if you experience something that doesn’t quite make sense to you, you will tend to remember it as having meaning that may not have been there.  A good example is dreams:  Watch yourself the next time you tell someone a dream and see if you don’t notice yourself modifying the dream a little to force it to make sense!

Learning was something the Gestalt psychologists were particularly interested in.  One thing they noticed right away is that we often learn, not the literal things in front of us, but the relations between them.  For example, chickens can be made to peck at the lighter of two gray swatches.  When they are then presented with another two swatches, one of which is the lighter of the two preceding swatches, and the other a swatch that is even lighter, they will peck not at the one they pecked at before, but at the lighter one!  Even something as stupid as a chicken “understands” the idea of relative lightness and darkness.

Gestalt theory is well known for its concept of insight learning.  People tend to misunderstand what is being suggested here:  They are not so much talking about flashes of intuition, but rather solving a problem by means of the recognition of a gestalt or organizing principle.

The most famous example of insight learning involved a chimp named Sultan.  He was presented with many different practical problems (most involving getting a hard-to-reach banana).  When, for example, he had been allowed to play with sticks that could be put together like a fishing pole, he appeared to consider in a very human fashion the situation of the out-of-reach banana thoughtfully -- and then rather suddenly jump up, assemble the poles, and reach the banana.

A similar example involved a five year old girl, presented with a geometry problem way over her head:  How do you figure the area of a parallelogram?  She considered, then excitedly asked for a pair of scissors.  She cut off a triangle from one end, and moved it around to the other side, turning the parallelogram into a simple rectangle.  Wertheimer called this productive thinking.

The idea behind both of these examples, and much of the gestalt explanation of things, is that the world of our experiencing is meaningfully organized, to one degree or another.  When we learn or solve problems, we are essentially recognizing meaning that is there, in the experience, for the “dis-covering.”

Most of what we’ve just looked at has been absorbed into “mainstream” psychology -- to such a degree that many people forget to give credit to the people who discovered these principles!  There is one more part of their theory that has had less acceptance:  Isomorphism.

Isomorphism suggests that there is some clear similarity in the gestalt patterning of stimuli and of the activity in the brain while we are perceiving the stimuli.  There is a “map” of the experience with the same structural order as the experience itself, albeit “constructed” of very different materials!  We are still waiting to see what an experience “looks” like in an experiencing brain.  It may take a while.