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In this lesson, you’ll explore the basic concepts and principles of Gestalt psychology. The word ‘Gestalt’ is a German word that means ‘seeing the whole picture all at once.

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What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that believes all objects and scenes can be observed in their simplest forms. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Law of Simplicity,’ the theory proposes that the whole of an object or scene is more important than its individual parts. Observing the whole helps us find order in chaos and unity among outwardly unrelated parts and pieces of information.Gestalt psychology proposes a unique perspective on human perception. According to Gestalt psychologists, we don’t just see the world, we actively interpret what we see, depending on what we are expecting to see.

A famous French author, Anaïs Nin, who was not a psychologist, framed that idea in an interesting way: ‘We do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are.’Gestalt psychology encourages people to ‘think outside of the box’ and look for patterns. In this lesson, we’ll explore the basic principles of Gestalt psychology and the laws of perceptual organization using examples.

Laws of Perceptual Organization

One of the laws of perceptual organization is that of apparent motion, through which the whole is more important than the individual parts. When you view an animated cartoon or any kind of film, you’ll perceive motion when the individual frames are strung together. You won’t see the individual frames; you’ll see action and motion that tells a story. For example, in a cartoon, a character may run off the edge of the cliff and, for a moment, tread air until he looks down, sees his situation and then plummets to the floor of a canyon to become a flat coyote, cat or bunny.

In reality, all of this apparent motion is nothing more than a sequence of frames strung together and proof that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ In watching the cartoon, we perceive the motion, but we do not perceive the individual frames that create the illusion of motion.Some of the other basic laws of perceptual organization include:

  • Proximity
  • Similarity
  • Closure
  • Figure vs. ground
  • Simplicity

Proximity and Similarity

To illustrate proximity and similarity, take a look at this famous painting by Georges Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Painted in 1884, it later inspired a popular Broadway play, Sunday in the Park with George.

Painting by Georges Seurat
Image for example
white square with purple circles

The principle of ‘figure versus ground’ is another law of perceptual organization. In a figure and ground relationship, we perceive any type of shape as the figure or object and the area around it as the background.

For instance, imagine you’re standing in the desert with miles of empty sand in every direction. A few feet away, you notice a camel. In this case, you’ll see the camel as the figure and the sand as the background. As a result, the figure-ground relationship is said to be ‘stable.

Stable figure-ground relationship
camel on sand

Now take a look at the ‘Vase or Faces’ figure. It’s called the Rubin vase illusion and represents a fascinating view of an ‘unstable’ figure-ground relationship. To prove that to yourself, study the image that follows. If you focus on the vase, the faces become the background.

If you focus on the faces, the white area becomes the background.

Unstable figure-ground relationship
white vase with black faces on either side

Simplicity

The principle of simplicity is actually the basic principle behind Gestalt theory.

Gestalt psychologists use the German word Pragnanz to describe it. Pragnanz means ‘pithiness’ in German, or concise and substantial. In relation to Gestalt theory, it also means simplicity. According to the principle of simplicity, we try to interpret every object or scene in the simplest way we can.That idea may seem fuzzy, but it’s easy to grasp the idea with an example. Imagine a crisp autumn day.

You hear the honking of geese. Looking skyward, you see a flight of geese forming a rough ‘V’ formation. Some of the geese are lagging behind just a bit, while others are a bit ahead of their neighbors. Even so, under the principle of simplicity, you’ll still see a ‘V’ formation.

Lesson Summary

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that proposes all objects and scenes can be observed in their simplest forms. It’s also referred to as the ‘Law of Simplicity.

‘ According to the principle of simplicity, we try to interpret every object or scene in the simplest way we can. The theory is based upon the laws of perceptual organization.One of the laws of perceptual organization is that of apparent motion, in which the whole is greater than its individual parts. Additionally, whenever we see objects grouped together, we tend to perceive that they belong together. And when objects seem similar, we believe they belong together.

Closure refers to our perception of objects or spaces that are not fully complete or enclosed. In a figure and ground relationship, we perceive any type of shape as the figure or object and the area around it as the background.

Learning Outcomes

Following this video lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe Gestalt psychology and the principle of simplicity
  • Explain five laws of perceptual organization that form the basis of Gestalt psychology

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