The History of Psychology: Gestalt Psychology

At the same time of the rise of behaviorism, Gestalt Psychology was in its beginnings. This type of psychology emphasized on the whole (German: Gestalt) rather than the parts of mental elements. The main idea was that of elementism; learning and perception were combining methods that link existing elements with new patterns and properties. The sum of the parts is thus more powerful and something different than what the individual characteristics of the parts demonstrate. Gestalt psychology accepted the value of consciousness, but criticized the analysis of atoms or parts of it.

Phenomenology is the perception of an object as an immediate experience without reducing it to a group of elements.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the idea of fields of forces came about. For example, the electric fields of condensers were modeled as many parallel lines representing the forces that act on electrons. Thereby physicists as well as psychologists were focusing more on the total relationship than on any separate elements.

One of the best examples that illustrated the arguments of Gestalt psychologists is the Phi Phenomenon. In this experiment, Wertheimer has fixed two lights on different angles to flash with a certain delay. The light effect presented to subjects was that the lines started to move when a delay of approx. 60 msecs was set. This experiment was strengthening the Gestalt psychologists’ arguments against Wundtian psychology.

Wolfgang Koehler (1887-1967) was one of the leading psychologists of the German Gestalt Psyc. movement. He argued that sensory information can change without changing the perceptual quality of the object perceived. That is, an object can be viewed from different angles producing different geometric shapes on the retina. Our brain, however, perceives the object as the same.

Wertheimer and others set up some principles of perceptual organization: proximity, continuity and closure. Proximity states that parts seem to belong to the same object when they are close to the object. Our brain tends to sense continuous signals (continuity). Closure means that our brain can complete incomplete sensory information and enable us to perceive incomplete objects as a whole.

Isomorphism states that underlying neural activity corresponds to the process of psychological experience.

The last figure in the chapter was Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). His main theory was called field theory in which he tried to visualize psychological phenomena with mathematical vectors. This topological approach was used to explain phenomena as a whole and but still show the internal activities and relationships.