6 junio, 2024

Gestalt psychology: theory, laws, authors

The gestalt psychology It is a branch of psychology that appeared in Germany and Austria at the beginning of the 20th century. This is a current of thought that focused above all on perception and its cognitive component: its authors defended the idea that what our senses do not reproduce the world as it is, but instead reconstructs it following a series of of principles that can be studied.

The word «gestalt» as used in this discipline can be translated as «pattern» or «configuration». Among the main authors of this current we find psychologists as important as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka. Both they and their disciples argued that humans perceive patterns and ordered sets, instead of detecting individual elements.

One of the main tasks of Gestalt psychology and its developers was to study some of the principles that determine human perception, especially visual. Thus, the psychologists of this branch studied phenomena such as proximity, continuity, closure or connection.

To this day, Gestalt psychology has expanded to other areas such as therapy. However, it is a current that has not evolved much during the last century, although its principles are still being studied and are very important in the field of perception.


Gestalt theory

– Context and bases

Gestalt psychology was one of the first historical currents to appear within this discipline. He placed great emphasis on the study of human perception, and unlike other branches, he defended that what we perceive is not an exact reflection of reality, but rather that we build it through certain mental mechanisms.

Gestalt psychology appeared in Austria and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its authors went against associationist psychology, the first current in history, which divided human experience into different elements that were not related to each other.

To study human perception and its principles, Gestalt psychology used phenomenology; that is to say, the free description of the direct psychological experience, with the intention of analyzing both the element that was being studied and the subjective experience of the person.

In this sense, Gestalt psychology was the first current in history to add a humanistic point of view to the study of mental activity. Until then, psychology had tried to study the human experience from a completely scientific point of view, thus leaving aside many phenomena that could not be experimented on.

Gestalt psychology was primarily promoted by Max Wertheimer and his disciples Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka.

– Study of perception

The phenomenon that Gestalt psychologists focused on most was perception, especially vision and the organization of perception. This interest began in 1912 when Wertheimer discovered the «phi phenomenon,» an optical illusion in which various stationary objects appear to move when presented very rapidly. This allowed them to postulate the principle of permanence of vision.

The discovery of the phi phenomenon revealed that the idea that our vision simply represents the world as it really is is false. Thus, Wertheimer began to investigate and soon realized the existence of what he called «emergent phenomena», which are experiences of perception that do not derive from elements of reality but from the way in which our mind works.

From this moment on, Wertheimer and his disciples began to investigate some of the rules that govern our visual perception. Later they extended the principles of this current to other areas, such as learning, thought, motivation, personality or social psychology.

Within the field of perception, Gestalt psychology is still of great importance, since it was the first current that managed to explain many phenomena that were not understood until then: optical illusions, the perception of movement or perceptual constancy, among others. others.

– Theoretical framework

Gestalt psychologists developed a series of theoretical principles that guided them in the approach of all their theories. The most important were the principle of totality, and the principle of psychophysical isomorphism.

He principle of totality It states that the conscious experience has to be considered globally, since the sum of all the elements is greater than the set of its parts separately. Thus, within a set of elements, the so-called «emergent properties» appear, which cannot be observed if all the pieces are not available.

An example of this is the already mentioned phi phenomenon, which only appears when static photographs are presented in succession and very quickly. This phenomenon could not be observed if there was only one image, or if the necessary degree of speed was not present.

On the other hand, the principle of psychophysical isomorphism He argued that there is a direct correlation between conscious experience and brain activity. Thus, for each perceptual phenomenon that we find, it would be possible to find some type of brain activity that accompanies it.

– Methodology

From these two theoretical principles, Gestalt psychologists created new ways of researching human perception. The most important were the experimental analysis of the phenomena, and the biotic experiments; that is, experiments carried out in natural environments and with little controlled situations.

– Properties


Also known as the principle of appearance, it draws an image in the mind from a global perception that we have been acquiring with previous visual perceptions. That is to say, although the mind does not clearly determine which object exists from its parts, it is possible that it emerges in the mind from the global form.

For example, thanks to this principle of emergence, it would explain why a group of zebras can be perceived eating despite the fact that the set of its parts is not defined. The perception arises from the totality of the image, after building our mind the shape of the animals or the shadows.


Also called reification. It refers to the non-explicit spatial information that we perceive when viewing an image. That is, the mind is capable of extracting more details than the shape of the image shows us.

For example, in the illustration on the left our mind can perceive three triangles even though the image does not show it to us explicitly. In turn, in the image on the right we can see a three-dimensional figure, when it is really a 2D drawing.


It is also known as multistable perception. It explains the phenomenon that occurs in the mind when being able to see two objects/silhouettes in the same image.

This visual perception is explained very well with the Rubin’s cup. In this illustration, the human mind can determine that it is looking at a glass or two human faces in profile.


In this phenomenon, the mind is capable of perceiving simple geometric objects even if they are modified in their rotation, scale or translation. Even being distorted or elastically deformed or applying lighting or contrast changes, the perception of it will still be recognizable.

For example, in the following image we see the famous toy Boomerang, from various perspectives, deformations and light contrasts. Despite these distortions, the toy is still perceptible in our mind.

Gestalt Laws

One of the most important contributions of Gestalt psychology was the creation of a list of principles that govern visual perception. Next we will see which are the best known of them together with an example for each one.

1- Principle figure – background

The figure-ground principle defends that people automatically perceive objects as if they were superimposed on the background in which they are framed. Thus, they can stand out from it, or on the contrary merge with it and be difficult to perceive visually.

For example, in this image it is easy to perceive the point on the right as different from the background it is on; but it is much more complicated to determine the same with the point on the left.

2- Principle of similarity

The principle of similarity defends that when several elements seem to be similar to each other, we tend to group them together and think that they have the same function or belong to the same set.

For example, in this image the black and white dots appear to form two separate groups, even though they are all the same distance from each other and have no distinguishing features other than their color.

3- Principle of proximity

The proximity principle states that figures that are close to each other in a space tend to be perceived as a whole, even if they are not really part of the same group.

In this example, the circles that are closest to each other appear to belong to the same figure, while the blank spaces between them appear to separate the different sets.

4- Principle of the common region

The common region principle argues that we tend to group different elements together whenever they seem to belong to the same set or are in a shared space, even if there is no true relationship between them.

In this example, the circles that are surrounded by the same blue line appear to be part of the same set, even though they are farther apart than they are from the first point of the next group.

5- Principle of continuity

The principle of continuity states that elements that are placed on a curved or straight line appear to have a greater relationship with each other than with other elements that are outside it.

In this drawing, for example, we can perceive two intertwined ropes in the drawing on the left instead of several unconnected shapes, as in the lower example on the right. However, there is no real reason for us to perceive them this way.

6- Closing principle

The closure principle postulates that when we look at a complex set of items, we tend to look for a single pattern that is easily recognizable. In this way, for example, when we look at an image that seems to be incomplete, our brain automatically fills in the gaps so that we can recognize the figure represented.

For example, in this figure we can see represented a circle and a square even though both are incomplete.

7- Principle of focus

The principle of focus establishes that any element that stands out visually will capture the attention of the viewer and will prevail over the rest of the components of the image.

For example, in this image clearly the focal point is the smiling face, which…

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