Gestalt School of Psychology

Gestalt school of thought viewed human behaviour and mind as a complete whole. The term Gestalt means totality, Structure, Figure or Unity. Gestalt school of thought came into inception during early 20th century in Germany in the famous work of “The Attributes of Form” by the Australian Philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels. Gestalt psychology is based on the principle that “The whole is different than the sum of its parts”. This study has major contributions in explaining the complex processes of perception and sensation, with major emphasis on the fact that human minds perceive objects or make sense of the world around them by viewing things in totality or from a holistic perspective.

History of Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology originated in the works of Max Wertheimer which was in response to the structuralism approach propounded by Wilhelm Wundt. The gestalt psychologists analyzed the behaviour pattern and mind in totality. Wundt, on the other hand, considered the psychological parameters in parts. Let’s analyze the major contributions of these Gestalt psychologists on a one by one basis:

Max Wertheimer: He is one of the three founding members of Gestalt school of thought and is famous for his phi phenomenon concept, which involved perceiving still images in rapid succession which created illusion about movement.

Kurt Koffka: As one of the key founding members of Gestalt psychology, he researched on diverse topics related to the field of psychology with focus on perception, learning and hearing disabilities.

Wolfgang Kohler: As one of the crucial founding members of Gestalt school of thought, it was he who explained the Gestalt theory in a nutshell by describing that “The whole is different than the sum of its parts”. He was known for his research insights on problem solving.

Characteristics of Gestalt Theory

  1. Holistic Approach: For analyzing the mental health, the Gestalt psychologists adopted a holistic approach, instead of analyzing various dimensions in isolation.
  2. Perceiving realities and structuring information based on past experiences: We perceive realities differently and perceive information differently by being under the influence of our previous experiences. We can adapt our mental processes or perceptions as and when the new situation arises.
  3. Opposed the then most prevalent schools of thought: Gestalt psychologists opposed the then predominant schools of thought behaviourism and psychoanalytic theory. Behaviourism was viewed to be quite narrowly focused by laying undue emphasis on stimulus and responses. According to them, the behavioural school of thought ignored the importance of mental processes or human intelligence. They equally criticized psychoanalytic theory for being too passive and giving undue importance to subconscious state of mind for influencing human behaviour.
  4. Focus on Perception: The Gestalt psychologist’s main focus was on explaining the laws of perception. According to them, with the help of perception we are able to acquire worldly knowledge, learn to interact and establish connections with others.

Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization

The Gestalt psychologists have attempted to explain various laws of perception like laws of Pragnanz, Similarity, Proximity, Closure and Continuity. Their belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts has resulted in the discovery of various processes or phenomena that take place during perception.

  • The Law of similarity stresses on the fact that objects which appear to be similar are usually grouped together and perceived in a holistic sense. This grouping can be done on both auditory and visual stimuli.
  • The Law of Proximity stresses on the fact that the objects which maintain physical proximity or are near to each other are usually considered as members of the same group.
  • The Law of Pragnanz says that we tend to perceive the objects in the simplest possible forms as our brain responds well to harmony instead of dissimilarities or complexities.
  • The Law of Closure highlights that we tend to close the open contours for providing meaning to our interpretations in a holistic form. Our minds tend to fill the missing information for creating meaningful shapes or making sense of the environment.
  • Law of Continuity in Psychology refers to tendency of human minds to perceive objects which maintain a uniform continuity or are engaged in either straight or curved lines to form a smooth path.

The Gestalt psychology equally stressed on the fact that perception is not all about how we interpret the worldly events by seeing the realities, but what we actually perceive is under the influence of our expectations and motivation.

Applications of Gestalt Theory

  1. Research of key psychological processes like perception and attention: The Gestalt thinkers have incredible contributions in explaining the fundamental psychological processes like perception and attention. Their findings have laid that foundation for further research and discoveries in this area for other thinkers. For example, research work and advances made in this field, has helped the researchers and people from various disciplines in carrying out various programmes more efficiently and treat various perceptual problems with the help of therapies.
  2. Problem Solving: Gestalt psychologists insisted on productive thinking attaining newer insights or reaching the moment of eureka. Productive thinking according to Wertheimer means using the creative insights or reorganizing the problems creatively for finding out the solutions to those problems. Reproductive thinking on the other hand, relies on the mechanical approach of applying the previously acquired knowledge in the present to tackle the issues. Productive thinking is a proactive approach and reproductive thinking is regarded to be reactive or mechanical.
  3. Application of Gestalt Psychology in Education: Gestalt psychologists viewed students’ more than just mere data recording entities and stressed on the fact that they should learn to find out creative solutions on their own for dealing with various difficulties. Practically, the Gestalt approach can be integrated in the area of education for deeper research insights and solutions.
  4. Communication and Gestalt Theory: Gestalt approach can be beneficial for those who are engaged in the field of creative communication like artists, speakers, publicists, designers, etc. By applying the perceptual laws they can win the attention of the audience and be able to communicate the desired message effectively by appealing to the senses or perception of the ultimate audience.

Strengths and Limitations of Gestalt Approach

One of the greatest strengths of this approach is its applicability in the day to day life and simplicity of its ideas. The theory provides us a better understanding on how we interpret and perceive the realities or make sense of the world around us in the light of perception. Moreover, their suggestions on creative problem solving and productive thinking and the inputs shared by them in Gestalt therapies related to promoting personal growth are true value additions.

However, the Gestalt theory is also not free from various criticisms. The theory has been criticized for being too individualistic, which may encourage selfish behaviour on the part of the individuals. They give more importance to understanding oneself first before understanding others. Secondly, some of the critics considered the laws of perceptual organization to be unscientific, ambiguous and vague lacking practical relevance.


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