The Echoes of the Mind (13) Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt Psychology

There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes. ~ Max Wertheimer

Gestalt is a German term for form or pattern. Gestalt psychology focuses on the distinction between sensation and perception. Gestalt’s primary principle is that the brain processes patterns holistically.

Going Gestalt

Gestalt’s antecedents include the works of Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, Christian von Ehrenfels, and William James. Kant believed that conscious experience came to fruition in the mind from sensory stimulation. The mind adds to what the senses perceive. In his distaste for Wundt’s elementalism, William James emphasized mentation as an irreducible flow: a holistic view that met with the Gestaltists approval.

 Ernst Mach

Thing, body, matter, are nothing apart from the combinations of the elements, – the colours, sounds, and so forth – nothing apart from their so-called attributes. ~ Ernst Mach

At the beginning of the 20th century, Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach conceptually bifurcated the nature of perception into space form and time form. The spatial qualities of a perceived object are its space form, while temporal attributes comprise its time form.

A geometric object, such as a circle, exemplifies a space form. A melody creates an exemplary time form.

Mach’s point was that a variety of sensory elements may create the same perception. Therefore, Mach argued, at least some perceptions are independent of how they are perceived.

 Christian von Ehrenfels

Austrian philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels published the essay On Gestalt Qualities in 1890. The high points of all the theoretical and conceptual concerns of the Gestalt movement were touched upon. Elaborating on Mach’s forms of space and time, Ehrenfels felt that perceptions contain Gestaltqualitäten (form qualities) that are not within isolated sensations. No matter what pattern an image of dots may be arranged in, one senses a pattern, not individual dots. Listening to a melody is not an experience of a series of notes per se, but of their pattern in relation to one another.


Both Mach and Ehrenfels thought that form emerges from sensory elements. They considered the atomic elements integral to determining the form. Gestalt theorists turned form-emerging-from-elements on its head by holding that the whole dominates the parts.

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Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler collaborated in founding Gestalt psychology in 1890.

The basic thesis of Gestalt theory might be formulated thus: there are contexts in which what is happening in the whole cannot be deduced from the characteristics of the separate pieces, but conversely: what happens to a part of the whole is, in clear-cut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole. ~ Max Wertheimer

Gestalt was a stunning repudiation of the reductionist bent that culminated in psychology with the stimulus-response school of behaviorists. Gestaltists embraced synergy, emphatic that the perceived whole is greater than its sensory constituents.

By addressing structure the founding Gestaltists went beyond James’ functionalism. Köhler was versed in physics, having studied with Max Planck, the creator of quantum mechanics.

Gestalt psychology represented an effort to model psychology after field theory instead of Newtonian physics. ~ B.R. Hergenhahn

The Gestaltist structural explanation of perception was that the brain controlled fields of electromechanical forces which were modulated by sensation. Köhler proffered a sophisticated (but sophistic) matterist explanation for how the brain generates the mind.

Psychological facts and the underlying events in the brain resemble each other in all their structural characteristics. ~ Wolfgang Köhler