The Basic Idea
When you’re waiting to make a left turn at the traffic light, and it suddenly starts flashing green, you’re likely not interpreting every bulb of green light individually. You’re likely perceiving the configuration of lights as a whole in the shape of an arrow.
Similarly, when you hear a song that’s been transposed in a different key, you’re still able to identify the same song even though each individual note is different from the original version.
Our brains have the incredible ability to perceive large configurations of stimuli despite the uniqueness of their components, and they can do so in very predictable ways. This is the insight that lies at the base of Gestalt psychology, a school of thought that emphasizes the idea that the ‘wholes’— patterns we make of individual stimuli— shape perceptual organization and transcend the sum of their parts.
Wundtian Structuralism: Considered the first school of thought in psychology, Wundtian Structuralism proposes that the structure of conscious experience could be best understood by analyzing the basic elements of thoughts and sensations.
Atomism: A belief central to structuralist thought, suggesting that consciousness should be broken down into the smallest possible elements, as pairs of thoughts connect based on experience.1
Gestalten: A perceptual pattern, configuration, or organized field having specific properties as a whole that cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.2
Phi Phenomenon: Apparent motion resulting from an orderly sequence of stimuli (such as lights flashed in rapid succession a short distance apart on a sign) without any actual motion being presented to the eye.3
Isomorphism: The idea that perception and the underlying physiological representation are similar because of related Gestalt qualities, referring to a correspondence between a configuration of stimulus and the brain state created by that stimulus.4
Originating from German and Austrian psychological thought, the Gestalt school commenced in 1912. Wertheimer set out to explain the optical illusion of apparent movement when two static points of light, like lightbulbs, struck in rapid succession, with one trailing the other at a slight distance.
What he was describing was the phi phenomenon, later recognized as the fundamental principle of film; when we go to the movie theater, the film doesn’t appear to our eyes like the film reel is flipping through a bunch of frames in rapid succession. It looks like one complete image.
Figure 1: An example of the phi phenomenon, where static points of light moving in quick succession give the appearance of the movement in a circular fashion.
Our ability to perceive motion from immobile images led Wertheimer to question how we studied perception. In fact, the phi phenomenon defied a central aspect of Structuralism, the predominant psychological model of thought at the time. Whereas the atomistic assumption of Structuralism suggested that consciousness can be broken down into putative basic elements, Wertheimer’s experiment showed that the configuration of such elements can alter the perception of the whole entirely.
This early experiment instigated a push to redefine how scientific analysis was performed and inspired a more holistic approach. After the discovery of the phi phenomenon, Köhler and Koffka (who had made significant contributions to Wertheimer’s experiments) set out to generate a systematic, scientific on the shortfalls of atomistic and structuralist explanations of experience.5
In physics and chemistry, bodies are constituted by molecules, atoms and particles. It seemed natural for Wundtian structuralism to first determine the simplest constituent parts of the psyche, study them in isolation, and establish how they combine to form the perceptual objects we experience.
Because psychology was a new science in the early 1900s, scientists presumed that its study had to follow the model of more mature natural sciences. They adopted what Wertheimer called ‘the Mosaic Doctrine’: the preference for analysis that decomposed psychic reality into its elementary constituent parts and the consequent atomistic assumption.6
Gestalt psychology challenged this methodology by suggesting there are certain properties that can’t be reflected by a specific element, and instead are properties-of-the-whole. For example, breaking down a song into its individual notes would render the melody incomprehensible, thus making the property of melody a Gestalt quality.
In fact, its German name, Gestalttheorie— Gestalt standing (in German) for organized structure, global configuration, organism—reflects this approach and stood in stark contrast to the status quo of the time.
Just as roughness cannot be perceived by touching a single point on a surface, or a melody cannot be formed by a single note, Gestalt psychologists argued that certain qualities exist independent of the quality of their parts.
These kinds of perceptual qualities (a melody, a line, even a human face) can remain unaltered, even when most or all its elements have changed (tonality, size, spatial location).7 The mere existence of these qualities demonstrated the inadequacy of the atomistic approach. Gestalt psychologists suggested that we don’t see the world in bits and pieces, but rather perceives wholes or configurations.8
Research suggests that this school of thought can be extremely effective in therapy. Gestalt therapy is centered on the idea that our overall perception depends on the interactions between many individual factors. Our prior experiences, immediate environment, thoughts, feelings, and needs all shape our perception as a whole. Gestalt therapy urges participants to gain awareness of what they are experiencing and doing in the ‘here and now’ by reliving their past trauma in the present. Instead of simply talking about a childhood trauma, the participants are encouraged to become the hurt child by reenacting their experience.9
Practitioners of Gestalt therapy encourage patients to concentrate on what’s happening in their lives at the present moment, rather than focus on their past experiences. Its goal is to emphasize the ‘here and now’. It has been effective at treating symptoms of depression and anxiety, increasing confidence, and encouraging feelings of self-efficacy and self-kindness.10
The father of Gestalt thought. Initially interested in law, he eventually decided he preferred philosophy and eventually joined the University of Frankfurt’s Psychological Institute where he became interested in human perception. He published his seminal paper in 1912: “Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement ” marking the beginning of the Gestalt psychology movement.
While initially interested in animal problem-solving, Kohler is best known for his contribution to Gestalt through his study of psychophysical isomorphism. He suggested that because the brain and mind are identical, the structure of conscious experience when we perceive, remember, or problem-solve, mirrors the physical structure of activity in the brain.11
Koffka was central in the promotion of Gestalt psychology in Europe and introduced it to the United States. He helped systematize Gestalt thought into a body of theories, influencing American educational theories and policies for years to come.12
The Gestalten framework has been strongly criticized for its lack of quantitative descriptiveness. Critics argue that the Gestalt suppositions seem to be only qualitative descriptions that do not truly explain the phenomena, and the Gestaltists’ holistic theories were often vague and perhaps even obscure.13
A particularly famous critique of the theory has come from Merleau-Ponty, a French phenomenological philosopher of the early 20th century. Merleau-Ponty opposed its naturalistic and physicalist philosophical assumptions. He argued that the translation of psychological gestalten to physiological gestalten, and therefore to physical gestalten, is overly reductionist.
His primary contention with the methodology was its lack of differentiation. If there were no structural difference between mental, vital, and physical orders, he reasoned, then there would be no difference at all -consciousness would be just what happens in the brain.14 Instead, Merleau-Ponty suggests that there is a fundamental indeterminacy to perceptual experience, and that perceived qualities may exist only as parts of complex structured wholes.15
Gestalt as a Structuring Principle in Organizations
In 2015, Professor of Media and Communication Management Brigitte Biehl-Missal conducted a study to explore how the modern-day aestheticization of the global economy has made the importance of aesthetic, sensually perceivable elements in the workplace grow significantly. As a result, Gestalt theory has a promising potential in the field of management studies related to aesthetics and atmospheres in the workplace.16 Biehl-Missal argues Gestalt theory can be readily applied in the office through arts-based interventions.
From a Gestalt theory perspective, organizations can be perceived as “gestalten.” It can be useful to encourage members of an organization to “give form” to the ways in which they perceive organizational life through such interventions. Methods like sculpting and painting can help organizational members in “finding a form” in the workplace, Biehl-Missal’s experiment asked the communications department of a large German transportation company to use Legos to model their perception of the organization. Participants were encouraged to model their perceived nature of teamwork and work processes, and, more specifically, on the topic of “barriers” in their organization. In groups of five to seven, they modelled their experiences, giving form to their perceptions by using aesthetic techniques through metaphorical structures, such as the “dividing wall” in the photo below. A Lego man representing the client was positioned away from the center of the scene, demonstrating that client orientation is not central, whilst another Lego man is seen head-less, suggesting that issues may be decided without thinking and adequate planning.
Figure 1: The use of duplo (Lego) in practical workshop with employees.17
By utilizing the form-generating capability of human senses, participants were able to give form to their personal, emotional, and atmospheric experience of work and visualize opportunities for positive change.
Related TDL Content
Gestalt psychologists have made significant contributions to the study of perception. Leveling-sharpening occurs when we forget the details of a memory, exaggerating some details and omitting others to match up with our cognitive assumptions and goals.
A key insight from Gestalt school was the interpretation of individual stimuli in the form of a larger, coherent configuration. Forming inferences is necessary in perception and influences the steps we take in reasoning.
- Yasnitsky A. (2014) Field Theory. In: Teo T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-5583-7_685
- Collins Dictionary. (n.d) Gestalten. In Collins Dictionary. Retrieved November 7, 2021, from https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/gestalten
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (n.d) Phi Phenomenon. In Merriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved November 7, 202, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/phi%20phenomenon
- Isomorphism. (2015, June 11). In Wikipedia.
- Harding, D. W. (1969, December 18). How’s Your Gestalt? The New York Review, p. 50.
- Hassan, M. S. (2007). Cassirer and structuralism of perception: an application of group theory to Gestalt psychology (Doctoral dissertation, Durham University).
- Kanizsa, G. (1994). Gestalt theory has been misinterpreted but has also had some real conceptual difficulties. Philosophical Psychology, 7(2), 149-162.
- Sokal, M. M. (1984). The Gestalt Psychologists in Behaviorist America. The American Historical Review, 89(5), 1242. https://doi.org/10.2307/1867042
- Grant, S. Gestalt Therapy. California State University Northridge. http://www.csun.edu/~hcpsy002/Psy460_Ch08_Handout_ppt.pdf
- Brennan, D. (2021, April 22). What is gestalt therapy? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-gestalt-therapy
- Neisser, U. (2002). Wolfgang Kohler. In Biographical Memoirs (p. 186). National Academy of Sciences.
- Garraty, J. and Carnes, M. (1999). Koffka, Kurt. American National Biography, vol. 12, 861-863.
- Jäkel, F., Singh, M., Wichmann, F. A., & Herzog, M. H. (2016). An overview of quantitative approaches in Gestalt perception. Vision research, 126, 3-8.
- Embree, L. (1980). Merleau-Ponty’s Examination of Gestalt Psychology. Research in Phenomenology, 10, 109. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24654310
- Ward, D. (2017, February 14). III: Merleau-ponty on gestalt psychology and phenomenology. Gestalt Structure & Phenomenology. https://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/gestalt-structure-phenomenology/2017/02/14/iii-merleau-ponty-gestalt-psychology-phenomenology/
- Biehl-Missal, B. (2015). Finding Form: Gestalt Theory as a Development of Aesthetic Approaches to Organisation and Management. Dialogue and Universalism, (4), 163-172.
- Biehl-Missal, B. (2015). Finding Form: Gestalt Theory as a Development of Aesthetic Approaches to Organisation and Management. Dialogue and Universalism, (4), 169