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Wertheimer on Gestalt Theory

Wertheimer on Gestalt Theory

Author: Erick Taggart

This lesson will introduce gestalt psychology and discuss major theorists.

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Video Transcription

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Hello class. In this lesson, we're going to be talking about another theory in psychology that's important for you to remember, and that's gestalt psychology. Now, gestalt is a German word, and it means the whole form, or the shape of something. And that tells you a lot about what the theory itself is going to actually say.

You can think of gestalt psychology as a sort of successor to functionalism. If you remember from functionalism, we said that mental processes could not be broken down. They were a flow, or a stream, of consciousness. And that's as opposed to structuralism, which, again, said that things were broken down in their component parts.

Gestalt psychology says something very similar. It says we need to study thinking and learning and perception as an entire unit, not as its smaller parts. Another term that you might hear related to it is holistic, which is to say, you take the whole of something.

Or a common phrase would be, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, right? The small parts don't tell you everything about something. Gestalt psychology especially highlights the relationships between different things, because you want to understand how things relate together to create something bigger.

The important figure to remember in gestalt psychology is Max Wertheimer. Now, Wertheimer was an Austrian-born psychologist who worked in Germany and later immigrated to New York in the early 1900s. And a lot of his work was focused specifically on perception. And he used the idea of gestalt psychology to explain things like optical illusions. So let's take a look at one as we describe some of the main principles of gestalt psychology.

So let's use the example of this optical illusion to highlight four of the basic principles that underlie gestalt psychology. The first is emergence, which is to say that complex patterns arise from relatively simple rules. Think of it like a checkers game, where the actual rules that describe how pieces move together are relatively simple, but when you look at the game as a whole, it's a lot more complex.

The second rule-- principle-- is reification, which is to say that you can construct more meaning out of something than what you're actually seeing or perceiving-- what it allows you to. So in the example of the optical illusion, there's actually not much meaning that's being attributed to that specific picture, but you might see it as either a duck or see it as a rabbit.

The third one is multistability, which is to say, ambiguous stimuli or experiences-- like the one that you're seeing in the picture-- can vary between those two different interpretations. So you might look at it. You might see one thing one second, and another thing another. So it can change.

And the third one, which is invariance, which is to say that shapes can be recognized, regardless of how you turn them around. Think about if you were to take a block and turn it on its end, or move it forward or backwards. You would still perceive it as being a block. That doesn't change. So it has a certain permanence to it.

Now, these are examples specifically from perception, from optical illusions, from things like that, but you can apply these to different, other concepts in psychology. An example might be when you think of an insight, like the famous story of "Eureka," right?

Insight tends to come all at once at an exact moment. It's not something that comes piecemeal. Again, we're taking it as a whole, and how it all comes together, and how you can't break down the insight into its component parts. It just all comes together. So that's an example of how gestalt psychology influences psychology and our understanding as a whole.

Terms to Know
  • Gestalt

    Form, pattern, or whole. Thinking, learning, personality cannot be broken into parts – must be studied as a complete unit, must understand relationships.

  • Max Wertheimer

    Founder of Gestalt psychology.