Introduction to Gestalt Psychology

Although Max Wertheimer is considered to be Gestalt’s founder, it was his student, Kurt Koffka who wrote and published, “Principles of Gestalt Psychology” in 1935. It became the Bible’ for Gestalt psychologists.

A number of people were instrumental in forming Gestalt psychology as a separate school of thought. Gestalt has a literal meaning of shape or forms. It’s defined as a “structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary)

What this means in general terms is, in order to solve a problem we must see the overall structure and organize it as a whole instead of the looking at the summation of its parts.

Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler were students of Max Wertheimer who worked with him to develop Gestalt psychology. They established the Gestalt Laws of Organization.

Gestalt Laws of Organization:

1.) Proximity: we tend to group things together that are close together in space.
2.) Similarity: we tend to group things together that are similar.
3.) Good Continuation: we tend to perceive things in good form.
4.) Closure: we tend to make our experience as complete as possible.
5.) Figure and ground: we tend to organize our perceptions by distinguishing between a figure and a background.

Examples of Gestalt

Many of us have seen the Gestalt image of a vase. Or is it faces? When we look at the main contours we see a vase, but when we look at the background it becomes two faces in close proximity. How do we decide what it is?

Wolfgang Kohler related a story of Sultan, a chimpanzee that he observed when he was on the Canary Islands. The chimpanzee was caged, and couldn’t reach a banana that was on the outside of his cage. He saw some sticks nearby the cage and had a Gestalt moment’. He got the sticks and assembled them and reached the banana.

How did he do that? Behavioral psychologists didn’t train Sultan. He apparently re-framed the problem, saw the whole picture, and solved it.

Another training experiment involved chickens that were given corn as a reward for pecking on the gray side of a black and gray board. When the board was changed to white and gray, the chickens rightly chose the white side of the board to find their corn. Even chickens can use perception of dark and light to solve problems.

Gestalt and Education:

Like Piaget with his Cognitive Theory, Gestalt has influenced they way students learn. Gestalt learning takes into consideration, wholes, complete structures and systems instead of memorization style learning.

Gestalt, like Cognitive theory has had a great influence on education with the belief that learning is a process that occurs in steps, and that children should be exposed to what they can grasp in appropriate age level classes. Class curriculum have been built around these theories.

Of the different schools of thought that grew from the origins of psychology, Gestalt is the most fun and, of course, the most visual to study. Where psychoanalysts speak sex, doom and gloom, and behaviorists rely on rote learning, Gestalt is vibrant and lively with a great deal to offer in understanding truth in perception and learning.