The Echoes of the Mind (13-6)


The hypothesis underlying Gestalt psychology is that brain activity tends toward equilibrium in accordance with the law of Prägnanz. This tendency is disrupted when a problem arises. Disequilibrium creates a tension that persists until the problem is resolved, then brain activity is motivated to come back to balance (homeostasis).

Cognitive Trial & Error

According to Gestalt, a person typically tries to solve problems by scanning the environment and imagining a series of possible solutions until envisioning one that seems plausible. Gestaltists emphasized cognitive trial and error, as contrasted to the relatively mindless behavioral trial and error that behaviorists believed in.


The Gestalt theory of learning is that an organism learns associations or principles, not specific responses to certain stimulus as behaviorism instructs. Once a principle is learned, an organism applies it to similar situations: a process termed transposition.

One of Wertheimer’s most influential books was Productive Thinking (1959). In it he contrasted good versus bad teaching. Improper instruction is rote memorization, which does not transfer well to new situations. In contrast, the best teaching leads to understanding the nature of the subject, which gives a grasp of the Gestalt of the subject matter.


Gestalt emphasis on the tendency of the brain to form coherent patterns did not deny the importance of experience. How the brain organizes is a product of sensory experience.

Koffka assumed that each experienced physical event gives rise to a specific brain activity, which he termed a memory process. The process concludes when the stimulus ends. But the remnant of memory process remains in the brain: a memory trace. Once a memory trace is formed, subsequent related experiences create interaction between the memory process and memory trace.

Koffka thought that a trace “exerts an influence on the process in the direction of making it similar to the process which originally produced the trace.” This is the Gestalt take on associative memory.

An individual trace yields a trace system by accumulation of related experiences. The interaction of traces and trace systems with ongoing brain activity (memory processes) renders memory recall a smoother and better organized process than it would otherwise be. Trace systems govern memories of individual experiences as well as their categorization.

As with everything else addressed by Gestalt theory, memory follows the law of Prägnanz, in remembering the essences of experiences rather than myriads of details. The brain operates to make memories as simple as possible Gestaltists thought.

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The physiological theory of the Gestaltists has fallen by the wayside, leaving us with a set of descriptive principles, but without a model of perceptual processing. Indeed, some of their “laws” of perceptual organisation today sound vague and inadequate. What is meant by a “good” or “simple” shape, for example? ~ English psychologist Vicki Bruce et al