Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology that studies human experience and behavior as wholes rather than independently functioning, disparate parts.

The Gestalt school of psychology, or Gestaltism, was founded in the early twentieth century by the German psychologist Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) and his younger colleagues, Kurt Koffka (1886– 1941) and Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967). The association between the three men began in 1910 with early studies of human perception that ultimately led to the wide-ranging Gestalt view of the whole as more than the sum of its parts. The Gestaltists were at odds with structuralism, the popular school of psychology of the day, whose proponents believed that the mind consists of separate units or elements that can be understood by mapping and studying them in combination. The Gestalt psychologists believed instead that mental experience is dependent not on a simple combination of elements but on the organization and patterning of experience and of one's perceptions. Thus, they held that behavior must be studied in all its complexity rather than separated into discrete components and that perception, learning, and other cognitive functions should each be seen as a structured whole.


Gestalt principles of organization—
Principles or laws of Gestalt psychology that identify factors leading to a particular form of perceptual organization.
Insight learning—
A theory of learning put forth by Wolfgang Ko¨hler in which the subject learns to solve problems all of a sudden through understanding related parts of the problem rather than through trial and error.
Perceptual field—
All factors or parts within a person's surroundings of which he or she is aware or understands at a given time.

Investigating the phenomenon of apparent motion perception on which motion pictures are based, the Gestaltists discovered that when two lights are flashed in succession under specific conditions, an illusion of continuous motion is produced. The subject perceives a single light that appears to move from the position of the first light to the position of the second light. This and other experiments led the Gestaltists to conclude that the mind imposes its own patterns of organization on the stimuli it receives rather than merely recording them, and that the significance of the mental “wholes” thus formed transcends that of their component parts. This “phi” concept, or pure motion, was published by Max Wertheimer in 1912 and is widely recognized as the beginning of Gestalt psychology. The Gestalt psychological approach is based on the belief that mental operations consist mainly of these organic wholes rather than the chains of associated sensations and impressions emphasized by earlier psychological research.

Another well-known Gestalt concept illustrating the significance of the whole involves the interdependence of figure and ground. Gestaltists introduced the idea that perception occurs in perceptual fields consisting of a figure that receives most of the viewer's attention, and a ground that forms a background. Neither figure nor ground can exist without the contrast they provide for each other, forming an inseparable whole that can only be understood as part of a dynamic process greater than the sum of its individual parts. Kö hler's work with primates during this period yielded important findings on learning and problem solving that could be applied to humans and contributed further to the body of Gestalt theory. His experiments emphasized “insight learning,” through which the test subject finds a solution to a problem by suddenly “seeing it whole” rather than through random trial-and-error attempts, or reward-driven conditioning. Hence, Kö hler offered a basis for viewing learning as the result of higherlevel thinking involving the creative reorganization of data to produce new ways of envisioning a problem.

While the Gestaltists were at odds with many popular psychological views of their time, including those held in behaviorism and introspective psychology, they successfully maintained the value of an unstructured form of introspection known as phenom-enology. Phenomenological investigation explored questions regarding personal perception of motion, size, and color and provided additional feedback regarding perception and its importance in psychological experiences. This information influenced later perception-centered theories involving problem solving, memory, and learning.

See also Gestalt principles of organization ; Phenomenology .



Brownell, Philip. Gestalt Therapy: A Guide to Contemporary Practice. New York: Springer, 2010.

Koffka, K. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. Rep. London: Routledge, 2013.

Kö hler, Wolfgang. Gestalt Psychology: The Definitive Statement of the Gestalt Theory. 2nd ed. rev. New York: Liveright, 1970.


Wagemans, Johan, et al. “A Century of Gestalt Psychology in Visual Perception I, Perceptual Grouping and Figure-Ground Organization.” Psychology Bulletin 138 (November 2012): 1172–1217.