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Psychology 101, The School of Gestalt or Cognitive Perspective

Updated on August 30, 2011

Here we have another Psychology 101 article in the series. So, what is the school of Gestalt? It is the cognitive perspective of the human mind. Here we are going to discuss, simply, the foundations of the Cognitive movement in psychology.

Drawing on the major contributors like Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Lewin and the father of Cognitive Psychology, Ulric Neisser, we take an overview of the whole idea of perception as a concept.

We then look at how the school of Gestalt has evolved into what we know today and identify the official definition of cognitive psychology. In any event, we hope that you will enjoy this article.

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Psychology Definition

As this is a psychology 101 based article, I will, as always, start by providing a ‘working definition’ of psychology as a term:

‘Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behaviour of humans and animals.’

Psychologists concentrate on what is observable and measurable in a person’s behaviour. This includes the biological processes in the body, although, the mind is central to the subject.

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The School of Gestalt or Cognitive Perspective

Not to be confused with Gestalt Psychotherapy, the school of Gestalt is more to do with the cognitive perspective - meaning thinking processes (perceiving, memory, language and problem solving abilities). Major contributors in Gestalism are:

  • Kurt Koffka (1886 - 1941) published the fundamental concepts in Gestalt Psychology in 1922 with Perception: An Introduction to Gestalt-Theorie and later a more conclusive publication - Principles of Gestalt Psychology in 1935.

  • Wolfgang Köhler (1887 - 1967) was heavily influenced by the scientific approach after he worked with Max Planck - the founder of quantum physics. He famously studied Chimpanzees in Tenerife from 1913 where he was stranded due to the outbreak of world war 1. He documented his findings in The Mentality of Apes in 1927. Other famous classics include Static and Stationary Physical Gestalts (1920) and Gestalt Psychology (1929). It was from studying chimpanzees that he developed Insight Learning Theory or what we know as Cognitive Theory. It takes into account the thought processes of individuals by having insight. This highlights that people and animals can learn by thinking and not just by imitation or conditioning.

Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory

  • Max Wertheimer (1880 - 1943) published Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement in 1912. Based on the ideas of movie stills in motion (28 frames per second), The Phi Phenomenon was a product of his experiment where he designed two slits for which two lights shined through. By switching each light on and off, at 60 millisecond intervals, he created the illusion of only one light moving backward and forward. An example to demonstrate this today - one part consisting of the sum of one whole - is neon lighting in advertising.

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What Does Gestalt Mean?

  • This is a German word meaning form, shape and pattern. It defines the principals of perception and emphasises on the whole - 'The whole is greater than the sum of parts'.
  • The mind is active and constantly looking for meanings, especially in visual perception.

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Gestalt Principals of Perception - Example of Emergence

Special thanks to tsevis
Special thanks to tsevis | Source

Gestalt Principals of Perception - Reification Example

Notice how the use of space creates an assumption for which your brain deciphers into a woman's head?
Notice how the use of space creates an assumption for which your brain deciphers into a woman's head? | Source

Gestalt Principals of Perception

Gestalt key principals are:

  • Emergence - complex patterns from simple rules, identifying something from the whole view.

  • Reification - Perception with spatial assumptions that the brain draws its own conclusions from.

  • Multistability - The ability for an image to pop back and forth at us in our perception of it.

  • Invariance - Where perception of objects can be distinguished whatever form they take. For example, this can be rotational or elastic. you can still recognise the shape, whatever the presentation.

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Visual Perception

Visual perception, and that involving other senses, is a highlighed feature in the school of Gestalt. It was particularly Wertheimer who believed that perception involves the sense organs - i.e. seeing and thinking. We experience the whole effect or pattern when we perceive an object - not just a collection of smaller images.

Gestalt Principals of Perception - Example Of Invariance

Notice how the shape can be recognised from whatever angle or dimension?
Notice how the shape can be recognised from whatever angle or dimension?

Gestalt Principals of Perception - Multistability Example

Rubin's Vase

If you look in the example above, an illusion is created as the pictures seem to go back and forth.  Is Rubin's vase two faces or a vase?  Stare at it for ten seconds and note what you see!

In the school of cognition, illusions are simply demonstrations of an active mind.


This is a sense of goodness and order that can be experienced when objects are symmetrical. A good example of good pragnanz is that of the yin yang symbol. It is simple and stable.

Auditory Perception

In a similar way, auditory perception may be thought of in the same manner as visual. A melody is a whole piece of music, not just a sequence of notes. Even in the simplicity of some tunes, there can have great meaning!

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Gestalt Influencing Teaching

The Gestalt approach to teaching suggests that the teacher should present the material as a whole by providing overviews, summaries and outlines - not so dissimilar to the design of this very article!

In addition, it is recommended that the teacher:

  1. Provide stimulating activities
  2. Focus in general principals of problem solving, rather than the detail
  3. Encourage creativity, rather than rote learning.

Gestalt Therapy And Education

Every aspect of thinking can have all these characteristics. From emotional (an overwhelming sense, rather than small aspects), interpersonal (a sense of the whole person) and even social (the sense of the whole group). Whatever the situation, perception is seen as a whole, rather than singular influences.

As a result the Cognitive therapist will look at the whole person rather than particular signs and symptoms. Rather like holistic medicine, he takes on every aspect of the person's life in order to help resolve a perceptional difficulty.

Even in education, the Gestalt approach identifies the learner as someone who is an active participant to the learning experience as a whole.

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3 Styles of Leadership

Lewin produced a classic study call the 3 styles of leadership in boys groups.  He found that boys in a democratic group were more likely to work better, be more productive and work on their own as opposed to those in authoritarian or Laissez-Faire groups (Lewin, Lippit, and White, 1939).

Introducing Human Needs To The School Of Gestalt

Human needs, the personality and social influences seemed to be absent in Gestalt concepts. It was Kurt Lewin (1890 - 1947) who developed Field Theory in this doctrine. As someone who was highly influenced by the quantum physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) he integrated the field theory from physics to parallel humans situations.

The concept of Fields of Force was very fashionable in the 19th Century. Spaces affected by forces fascinated Physicists of the time as the concentrated more on magnetism and electricity rather than atoms and molecules. Lewin, therefore, found similiarities in that each person lives in a psychological 'field' or space.

In developing illustrations set in the past, present and future of lives situations helped him to understand and achieve equilibrium between individuals and their environments. He then went on to develop the idea of social fields consisting of sub- groups.

Today, Lewin's findings are used in education, therapy and management.

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Ulric Neisser and Cognitive Psychology Today

The true birth of cognitive psychology didn't really get started until 1960 when Bruner and Miller established the Center For Cognitive Studies at Harvard University. It was, however, Ulric Neisser who was crowned the father of Cognitive Psychology after the publication of his book of the same name in 1967. Here he defined cognition as the processes:

"by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered and used...cognition is involved in everything a human might possibly do"

Today the computer model is used as a metaphor to compare the human brain to. The hardware is the brain and the software are thoughts and languages. However, the fact is that even the worlds largest computer is limited compared to the human brain. These ideas follow the concept of connectionism.

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From Gestalt To Cognitive Psychology

Everything evolves and changes. The school of Gestalt is no different in the realms of psychology. The cognitive perspective has gone from a humble beginnings and burst into more complex ideas on perception and social inference. It is today that we see the ideas of computers as a metaphor for the brain and there is no doubt there are comparisons. However, there is always that missing element that no one seems to be able to identify. Perhaps the clues are in the other doctrines? Ideas in Cognitive psychology seem far away from other schools - take the ideas of the psycho dynamic, for example. Now might be the time for coming full circle and discover the cognitive aspect of the hidden. Whatever, there still seems to be plenty to learn.

© This work is covered under Creative Commons License

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    • sen.sush23 profile image


      8 years ago from Kolkata, India

      Though as a man-manager I have interest in psychology, applied in my work field- I hardly have much exposure to theories or knowledge of latest developments on the subject. This was very interesting, though a new concept. I enjoyed reading the hub, which seems to be a very difficult subject but put across very effectively in simple words. I am glad I found your hub- so that I may read more on the subject. Voted up and sharing.

    • shazwellyn profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Great Britain

      Yes, mentalist. I recently published an article about MRI and diagnosing Aspergers. Psychology as a whole has moved on in leaps and bounds. Thanks for your valued comment.

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 

      10 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      Cognitive reasearch,I think is really hitting it's stride now days with MRI experiments and research....almost to the point of predicting a persons choice and why they made it to even deliberating on whether someones lying,thanks for sharing shazwellyn.;)


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